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Introduction to cyber security: stay safe online
Introduction to cyber security: stay safe online

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3.4 End-of-life software

An image of an old-fashioned typewriter, but with a DVD drive and a mouse attached.
Figure 18

Software is continually being developed and replaced by a new version. The lifespan of software begins when it is released and ends when it’s no longer supported and updated.

Software doesn’t become completely unsafe as soon as it reaches the end of its lifespan; in many cases you can continue to use it, but you should be aware that security risks may not be addressed by its authors. If you work for an employer, you may be required to move to an updated version of the software as part of their security management process.

The first effect you will feel from end-of-life software is that companies will cease telephone and internet support for queries. So if you have problems using a product you won’t get any help. The manufacturer may also withdraw bug reporting, so you won’t be able to tell them about problems. At the same time you might also find that cheap upgrades to later versions of paid software are no longer available.

Most large software companies will continue to offer critical software support to obsolete products for a period of time. However, they will not prioritise these programs, instead they will concentrate on fixing problems in up to date software and releasing patches; only then testing older products to see if they are affected and if they can be fixed. This means that users of older products might be exposed to vulnerabilities for longer than those using more modern software. Developers of malicious software, who know about unpatched bugs in older products, are likely to attack these older, weaker programs in preference to more secure programs.

In 2019, Windows 10 was used by 55.77% of Windows OS computers. Windows 7 was still used by 33.42% and Windows 8 and XP and older by 10%. Windows 7 loses extended support on 14 January 2020. Windows 8.1 loses extended support on 10 January 2023.

For example, Windows XP is now no longer supported by Microsoft (since April 2014), despite being widely used. Windows XP and Windows Vista, the two oldest operating systems, have much higher incidences of infection than the newer operating systems that feature much greater levels of security.

If you are using end-of-life software, security applications such as up-to-date firewalls and antivirus software are essential as well as keeping up to date with key applications, such as web browsers and email programs which are used to send and receive personal data. Good information security will help keep you safe. Even if you take these precautions, you should begin planning for a transition to more modern applications. Upgrades are relatively cheap from one version to another (or even free), and any expense should be considered in the light of what you stand to lose if you do not use more secure software.

Finally, don’t forget that even supported software can be vulnerable if it is not updated regularly. In 2017, the WannaCry ransomware infected thousands of computers globally and it was later determined that most infected systems were running Windows 7, an operating system that was still supported by Microsoft. Indeed, months before the global infection of systems, an update to fix the vulnerability exploited by WannaCry had been released, but many systems had not been updated.