Expiring Windows XP support may mean many more Target-sized data breaches

Photo(Jim Hood @ ConsumerAffairs) There's a lot of sound and fury being generated over the Target data breach that may have exposed the credit and debit card data of more than 100 million Americans. But the list of potential villains includes not just the hackers who broke into Target's system but also the millions of consumers, businesses and institutions that are still running Windows XP.


Microsoft is officially ending support for the legendary operating system soon, meaning that it will no longer issue updates to fix security problems.

This is bad news for everyone. Even if you are running the very latest version of Windows, OS X or Linux, it's a near certainty that some of your most personal and valuable data is stored on or passes through systems still running XP.

That's because the relatively light, simple and reliable OS has for years been the first choice for point-of-sale terminals, medical devices and back-office systems of every size and description. These tend to be install-and-forget applications that are easily overlooked as IT people come and go.

Zombie recruits

PhotoGoogle Chromebook -- simple, inexpensive, secure

When Microsoft support ends, all these devices and systems will be even more vulnerable than they are now -- vulnerable not only to data theft but also to being taken over and used as zombie computers that send out malware, infecting other computers and smartphones, possibly including yours.

Don't believe it? Read any story about Windows 8 and scroll down to the comments. You'll find hordes of consumers proudly reporting that they would never think of upgrading their system because they continue to use XP with no problems.

It's sort of like Typhoid Mary. She lived a long and healthy life. Too bad about all those others.

Making matters worse is that the criminal underworld knows this is happening and has already written code to take advantage of it. After all, crime is big business and these days, the Internet is the path of least resistance for criminal enterprises, thanks in no small part to the individuals and businesses that don't take computer security seriously.

What to do

PhotoMacbook Pro -- svelte, secure, expensive

What can you do to make sure your computer is not part of the problem? The most obvious answer is, if you're still running Windows XP, it's time to bid it farewell. It is long past its prime and simply is not equipped to handle the security risks that today's Internet presents.

A perfectly acceptable replacement is Windows 7 -- a stable OS that is easy to set up and easy to manage. You can buy Windows 7 for as little as $65 and find instructions for upgrading on Microsoft.com.

Don't want a new version of Windows? Well, if your needs center mostly around email, web surfing and so forth, you can pick up a Google Chromebook for around $200. It's very secure and very easy to use but you can't install programs; you can only run apps through the Chrome browser.

Obviously you could buy a Mac but chances are anyone still running XP is not likely to shell out the bucks required for an Apple product. They are high-end, top-quality and quite secure but a bit on the pricey side.

You could also download a free copy of Linux Mint, an excellent lightweight OS that is secure and easy to use. It's very similar to Windows 7 in appearance and includes a complete package of office software, including word processing and spreadsheet programs.

We have all of these systems running in our office and try to use each of them daily, just to keep up with what's what. (Unfortunately, we also have Windows 8.1, a powerful OS with a horrible interface that is a source of endless frustration.) Any of them will be a perfectly adequate replacement for Windows XP and will upgrade your security to 21st Century levels.

It's not something to put off. Yes, Target and other retailers will be pilloried, sued, boycotted and generally reviled. But anyone using XP or any system that is not kept up to date is a big part of the problem as well.