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Windows 7 Support to End Soon. What’s at Risk?
Windows 7, an operating system released by Microsoft more than 10 years ago, will reach its end of life on January 14, 2020.
While Windows 7 can still be used after the operating system's end of life, using this outdated operating system puts your organization’s computers vulnerable to security risks.
Security Risks of Using Outdated Operating System
According to Microsoft, the end of life of Windows 7 means that after January 14, 2020, technical assistance and software updates from Windows Update that help protect computers will no longer be available. "If you continue to use Windows 7 after support has ended on January 14, 2020, your PC will still work, but it may become more vulnerable to security risks,” Microsoft said in its advisory.
Software programs like operating systems are never made perfect. Somewhere along the way, someone will find a vulnerability or a bug that must be fixed. As such, operating system vendors like Microsoft regularly, and as the need arise, issue security updates to fix newly discovered security vulnerabilities. In 2018 alone, Microsoft patched hundreds of security vulnerabilities on its operating systems, including Windows 7 and Windows 10.
With the end of life of Windows 7, newly discovered security vulnerabilities will no longer be fixed by Microsoft, putting your organization’s at risk of cyber-attacks.
The WannaCry attack which infected hundreds of thousands of computers in just a matter of 24 hours on May 12, 2017 gave the world a hard lesson on the risk of using outdated operating systems. WannaCry is categorized as a ransomware – a type of malicious software (malware) that stops users from using their computers or accessing their data.
WannaCry had shaken the online world due to its worm capabilities, that is, this malware spreads through the network, infecting other vulnerable computers, without the need for any user involvement. WannaCry exploits the security vulnerability referred to as CVE-2017-0145. This security vulnerability exists in the way that the Server Message Block 1.0 (SMBv1) handles certain requests. SMBv1 is the old version of the Server Message Block protocol that Windows operating systems use for file sharing on a local network. “An attacker who successfully exploited the vulnerability [CVE-2017-0145] could gain the ability to execute code on the target server,” Microsoft said.
Microsoft issued a security fix for CVE-2017-0145 on March 14, 2017 – months before the WannaCry attack on May 12, 2017. The company issued a security update to fix CVE-2017-0145 for operating systems that still received the company’s support, including Windows 7, Windows 10, Windows 8.1, Windows Server 2008, Windows Server 2012, Windows Server 2016 and Windows Vista.
No security update was issued to fix the security vulnerability CVE-2017-0145 for operating systems that reached its end of life, including Windows XP, Windows 8, and Windows Server 2003. At the time of the WannaCry attack on May 12, 2017, these outdated operating systems were vulnerable as they were defenceless without the security update.
It’s worthy to note that WannaCry infected Windows 7 the most despite the fact that at the time of the attack, this operating system was still supported by Microsoft with a readily available security fix issued months before the attack.
Costin Raiu, Director of Global Research and Analysis Team at Kaspersky Lab said that 98% of the computers infected by WannaCry used Windows 7 as the operating system. “ #WannaCry infection distribution by the Windows version. Worst hit - Windows 7 x64,” Raiu said.
Migration to Latest Operating System
A study conducted by Kaspersky Lab showed that even as newer versions of operating systems are available, nearly 41% still use either an unsupported or approaching end of support operating system. The study also showed that 40% of very small businesses (VSBs) and 48% of small, medium-sized businesses (SMBs) and enterprises still rely on unsupported or approaching end of support operating system.
Even as operating system vendors stop in supporting customers via security updates, cyber attackers never stop digging up new security vulnerabilities, knowing full well that any security vulnerabilities discovered won’t be fixed by the vendors.
Using Windows 7 after its end of life on January 14, 2020 also makes this operating system incompatible with other software such as Office 365 ProPlus. On the flip side, many organizations delay their migration to the latest operating systems as custom-made applications are incompatible to the latest operating systems. Migration cost is also another reason why many organizations delay migration from outdated operating systems to newer operating systems.
Leaving your organization’s outdated operating system exposed to the internet leaves it open to cyber-attacks. The cost of a cyber-attack may even be higher than the cost of migrating to a newer operating system.
If the migration to a newer operating system needs to be delayed for a little longer, computers using outdated operating systems should be taken offline to keep them away from the reach of malicious actors.
It’s also important to practice network segmentation, especially when using outdated operating systems. Network segmentation controls how traffic flows across the network.
In network segmentation, your organization’s network is divided into smaller parts or sub-network, ensuring that in case of a compromise in one sub-network, the other sub-networks won’t be affected. It’s advisable to keep computers using outdated operating systems in a separate sub-network.
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Steve E. Driz, I.S.P., ITCP