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Using old Windows versions securely

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Tuesday, February 7, 2023

According to StatCounter's open statistics, late last summer, Windows 11 overtook Windows 7 in terms of OS market share. This is quite a noteworthy event because after the release of Windows 10, version 7 remained very popular for a long time. Despite the existence of the more modern Windows 8, many users continued to take advantage of 7 as their main operating system, even after the developer discontinued its official support. Today’s most popular operating system—Windows 10—took about 3 years from the moment it was released to undercut its predecessor in terms of number of users.

Such statistics clearly show that Microsoft Windows users are mostly in no hurry to migrate to more up-to-date versions. There are many reasons for this; one of them is the desire to switch to an already “tested” and stable product. In the case of the latest Windows 11, its mass distribution has also been constrained by high PC hardware requirements. The presence of a huge number of obsolete but fully operational computers is another reason for the survivability of old OSs. Even Windows XP, released in 2001, according to the same statistics, still occupies about half a percent of the OS market.

In this Anti-virus Times issue, we will talk about how safe it is to use outdated versions of Windows to perform everyday tasks, and whether there are advantages in consciously refusing to use more modern operating systems.

First, it is necessary to determine at what point an operating system is considered to be outdated. After a product is no longer actively being developed, the developers behind it continue to maintain it by releasing important updates, including so-called security updates. At the end of the software's lifecycle, the developers continue to release only critical security updates that eliminate known vulnerabilities. As a rule, the refusal to support the software occurs in stages: first, basic Windows versions stop being supported; then free technical support for users is no longer available, and at the very end of the cycle, extended support of the versions for enterprises and businesses is discontinued. At this point, the product usually becomes outdated. For example, extended support for most versions of Windows XP became unavailable in 2016, and Windows 7 remained relevant until 2020; meanwhile the release of paid security updates ended just recently—in January 2023. Thus, Microsoft’s two most popular past operating systems are now outdated.

Let's take a look at a number of reasons why some people prefer older Windows versions. First, the choice may be due to computers with low performance by today's standards. Windows 11 is a good system, but by default, it can only be installed on a PC that supports a number of modern features. It also needs fairly fast hardware to operate comfortably. Windows 10, which was released almost 8 years ago, has lower requirements, but the 64-bit version will request at least 2 GB of RAM, and for optimal performance, it is highly desirable to have a computer with at least 4 GB of RAM. The CPU should also be relatively fast and maintain the required bit version to work with the OS. High requirements are also imposed on the volume of the hard drive. For the 64-bit version of Windows 10 to perform optimally, at least 20 GB of free disk space is required; and more would be better since Windows “grows” over time as updates are installed. A platform from the mid-2000s can be used to assemble a computer that will be suitable for working normally with Windows 10, but the world still has old computers that are used to solve certain tasks but are not suitable for working with Windows 10. In addition, for various reasons, users may not be able to upgrade their configurations.

Another reason is that some programs do not work well in new versions of Windows or do not work at all. This may be specific application software used for business purposes. There can be situations when an old program, long forgotten by its developer, is so deeply embedded in a technological process that the search for an alternative can prove to be a difficult task. Such a program can only work on Windows XP. At the same time, this computer can be used for a number of tasks. Thus, we get a fully living workstation running an outdated OS. The situation is similar when a computer is used to control some old hardware whose driver does not work on modern operating systems. Of course, we are not talking about computer peripherals but about expensive devices.

A separate category consists of conservative users for whom the switch to a new interface is accompanied by great inconvenience. In addition, the functionality of old OS versions may be sufficient for such users. For example, among Microsoft systems, Windows 7 still ranks third in terms of number of users and only recently yielded second place to Windows 11. Despite version 7’s advanced age and lack of support, third-party software developers, as a rule, continue to ensure their products’ compatibility with this OS. Among them is Doctor Web, which also supports a number of its products on Windows XP.

Let’s also remember users who like retro computers. Some of them continue to work on Windows 98 and even earlier systems, but we will consider this a hobby rather than a solution to applied problems.

Now let's try to figure out whether it is possible to use outdated systems relatively efficiently and safely in 2023. As you have probably guessed, the main problem is the decrease in security standards and the potential security holes in a system. Devices whose operating systems do not receive updates a priori are more vulnerable to cybercriminals’ attacks. Microsoft warns about this. The company issued the following statement after it announced the end of support for Windows 7, “If you continue to use Windows 7 after the end of support on January 14, 2020, your computer will work, but may be vulnerable to security risks” .

At a certain point, Windows 7 became the most vulnerable system as it remained popular enough to be in the focus of attackers and, at the same time, was less protected due to the termination of support and the absence of regular updates. Earlier a similar period was experienced by Windows XP users, since at the time its support was discontinued, the system was still popular. Therefore, when using such operating systems, you should pay special attention to your PC’s protection, taking into account general security rules, and use a reliable anti-virus.

It is widely believed these days that Windows XP is relatively safe because it cannot be compromised by malware. It is worth remembering that together with Windows XP, corresponding software is also used. On the Internet, users can find a huge number of infected installers of old programs that are compatible with this operating system. Most encryption ransomware distributed on the Internet is also able to run in this environment. Of course, now virus writers are not concerned about their programs being compatible with Windows XP, but this does not mean that the World Wide Web is free of old modifications.

And yet, for most users, the legendary XP is already part of history. But, one can work perfectly well in Windows 7 and Windows 8.1, since in terms of functionality, these operating systems remain modern while being less demanding of device hardware. Home users should be aware of the risks and use the access-rights differentiation feature and anti-virus software. We recommend that companies that have devices running Windows 8.1 or earlier versions consider upgrading to the most current and regularly updated Windows versions. The same applies to server solutions based on older Windows Server versions.

All the rest is a matter of convenience, preferences, purposes and opportunities. You may have an old computer that once ran a server for the needs of a local network. Or an old laptop running Windows 7, or even Windows XP, because you still find it convenient for typing text, watching movies or storing photos. All these decisions are valid. In any case, these devices store your data, which needs to be reliably protected.

The Anti-virus Times recommends

  1. Outdated Windows versions are vulnerable to digital threats, so just like modern operating systems, they need anti-virus protection. For example, the comprehensive solution Dr.Web Security Space 12.0 for Windows is compatible with Windows XP with SP2 and later update packages installed. Dr.Web server-protection products are compatible with Windows Server, starting with the version with SP1 that was released in 2003.
  2. Make sure that all available system security updates are installed. In exceptional cases, when critical vulnerabilities affecting unsupported operating systems are detected, Microsoft releases updates for such operating systems.
  3. If you use outdated Windows versions, you may be limited in your choice of modern software. Older versions of applications can also contain bugs and vulnerabilities, which reduces overall device safety.
  4. Do not install programs whose distributions are obtained from dubious sources. Look for the software versions you need on the official websites of software developers. Appropriate versions of programs for older operating systems are usually located in separate "archive" sections.
  5. Cybercriminals can disguise malicious programs as “special” builds of popular software that are allegedly designed to be run on old operating systems. As a rule, dangerous installers can be found on aggregator sites of various programs, including pirated ones, or on torrent trackers.
  6. A vulnerable device running an outdated OS and containing non-secure software can be a weak link during a network attack if it is connected to a common network infrastructure.

#Windows #security #history #security_updates #support #technologies

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