Operating system vulnerabilities allow people with evil intent to do a variety of nefarious activities on your computer. They could install cryptocurrency miners, botnets, keyloggers, or other malicious software. They can also steal your data or hold it hostage through a ransomware attack. Since these are exploits of weaknesses in the operating system itself, there isn’t a lot that your antivirus software can do to stop them—only regular updates provided by Microsoft can patch these holes in your system security. And when those updates stop coming, you will be utterly defenseless. Is the convenience of putting off your upgrade worth the risk?
Microsoft has been developing the most popular personal computer operating systems since the 1980s, and no versions have been as popular as Windows XP and Windows 7, released in 2001 and 2009, respectively. Approximately 40% of traditional desktop computers (including laptops) are still running Windows 7, which will no longer receive updates after January 14th, 2020. No less than 130 vulnerabilities—bugs that make a system susceptible to being hacked—have been found in Windows 7 annually for the past four years, including many remote code execution and memory buffer overflow vulnerabilities. Hackers make use of these problems to steal data and take over computers, sometimes rendering the machines unusable in the process. It is important that anyone still using these legacy operating systems upgrade to the latest version, Windows 10, in order to protect their data.
Some users might argue that the risk is acceptable. Many corporate systems, for example, rely on software that only runs on Windows XP, and they have other security measures in place that mitigate its weaknesses. Others find that since their computer still seems to work adequately for their needs, an upgrade is unnecessary. Older hardware may not support newer operating systems, and the expense of paying for a license can be a major factor as well. There are plenty of fairly legitimate reasons to put off your upgrade for as long as possible. What’s the worst that could happen?
In 2014, the year Windows XP ceased to receive updates from Microsoft, Home Depot experienced a massive data breach that exposed over fifty million customer email addresses and credit cards. It was later found that if they had been using Windows 7 (the latest version of the operating system at the time) on their point-of-sale computers, the breach could have been avoided. A corporate data breach, however, can seem to be pretty far removed from the threat to a home user. If you think about all the data you transmit from and store on your computer, you should begin to be concerned—your computer has credit card numbers, passwords, email addresses, Internet browsing history, and other personal information stored on it. If you’re using an old operating system, that data is at risk.
A more recent example was announced on February 27th, 2019; Google discovered a vulnerability in its Chrome web browser that was being actively exploited, and they released a fix on March 1st, 2019. According to the Google Security Blog, “As mitigation advice for this vulnerability users should consider upgrading to Windows 10 if they are still running an older version of Windows, and to apply Windows patches from Microsoft when they become available.” This was a serious flaw known as a “use-after-free”, which enables hackers to manipulate your system memory to execute their own code. Again, antivirus and antimalware software rarely catch this kind of exploit, so an upgrade to Windows 10 is required to protect the computer.
Fortunately, Microsoft has made upgrading to Windows 10 very painless. After purchasing a license and downloading an installation file, you can turn a USB flash drive into a bootable drive in minutes. The process is mostly automated, unlike previous versions of Windows, and can be completed by anyone, not just computer gurus. Additionally, licenses can often be found on sale, which can help offset the expense of the upgrade. Windows 10 Home Edition lists at $139 on Microsoft.com at the time of this writing.
That being said, if you’re running older hardware it may be time to invest in a new computer system altogether. Your experience with modern software will likely be very poor if you install Windows 10 on a system older than five years, as it is designed for computers with more memory, faster processors, larger hard drives, and higher-resolution displays. The benefits of running a newer operating system usually outweigh the cost, especially if you use sensitive data on a regular basis—including online shopping and social media.
Windows XP and Windows 7 have joined the ranks of outdated operating systems in the rolls of history, and there they should stay. As Microsoft ceases to release updates for Windows 7, unresolved vulnerabilities will be exploited by hackers and data will be stolen. Don’t bet on Microsoft fixing every vulnerability by the end of the year—upgrade to Windows 10 before someone steals your data.