Feds Aren't Worried About Windows XP Vulnerabilities

Ted S. Warren/AP file photo

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When Microsoft retires security support for the operating system in April, agencies will have countermeasures in place.

Federal agencies do not anticipate trouble when Microsoft early next month stops providing updated fixes for security flaws in the Windows XP operating system, top Obama administration officials say.

The Washington Post reported that about 10 percent of government computers, out of several million, will still be running XP when support ends on April 8. According to the newspaper, the problem is urgent, because vulnerabilities in the XP computers could allow intruders into larger networks. 

But White House officials say they feel individual agencies are prepared for the expiration of XP support and don’t see a need to take top-down action.

“Agencies have made significant progress in moving off Windows XP, and the federal government is ahead of the private sector in this regard," a White House Office of Management and Budget official said. During conversations with agency personnel, "we have received no indication that agencies require any additional OMB intervention at this time." 

Banks have been scrambling to upgrade the 2.2 million XP-based ATMs still using the 12-year-old operating system. According to Reuters, the cost of special deals with Microsoft for extended support or upgrades could be about $100 million for each of Britain's main banks.

Some agencies have decided it is cheaper or more efficient to stick with XP. Typically, this is because their systems are not connected to the Internet – where viruses spread -- or are impossible to overhaul. 

Agencies continuing to use XP "have put in place contingency plans to ensure that the risks associated with maintaining XP are mitigated," the OMB official said. "This is not an approach that is unique to the government – the private sector is approaching the migration in a similar way."

Administration officials could not tabulate the total cost of the changeover. 

The Homeland Security Department, tasked with overseeing governmentwide cybersecurity, has been providing agencies with free "continuous diagnostics" tools to help pinpoint vulnerabilities in their systems. This aid should allow agencies to focus time and money on “resolving the most significant weaknesses first, including the updating of software as necessary," DHS spokesman S.Y. Lee said.

"As a matter of law and policy, all agencies are responsible for the security of their networks and systems, and that includes addressing these known software vulnerabilities through ongoing patching," he said.

At Lee’s own department, a switch to Windows 7 is expected to complete before April 8, according to DHS officials.  

Microsoft's website states that, after April 8, XP users will stop receiving updates that "help protect your PC from harmful viruses, spyware, and other malicious software, which can steal your personal information.” Also, the reliability of Windows might wane without the installation of new drivers for hardware and other tools, company officials said.

But Microsoft officials seem confident that federal customers will be shielded from hackers come April 9.

“Because we are tightly working with our customers, and because of the types of systems that have yet to make the move off XP, we do not feel there is a substantially greater risk for the federal government on April 9 than there is on April 7,” Mark Williams, Microsoft’s chief security officer for federal systems, told The Post. “That being said, at the end of the day, it’s important to remember that the most safe system is a modern one.”