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XPocalypse, not now

Gregg Keizer | June 9, 2014
Didn't hackers get the memo? They were supposed to be exploiting the unpatched Windows XP

Two months after Microsoft withdrew support for Windows XP, the catastrophic wave of exploits that security experts predicted would quickly wash over the aged operating system have failed to materialize.

Microsoft provided its last regularly-scheduled security updates for Windows XP on April 8, making only a single one-time exemption several weeks later when it patched a then-being-exploited vulnerability in Internet Explorer, including the browser on XP.

But widespread, extraordinary Windows XP-specific attacks have not unfolded. Or perhaps better put, if they have, they haven't reached a level where watchful security companies have noticed. And antivirus vendors are among the first to shout warnings, both for altruistic and self-serving reasons.

Instead, the malware landscape has been populated with the usual, an unfortunate run-of-the-mill blend of phishing attacks, exploit kits and ransomware.

That's not what some security professionals believed would happen.

"When someone discovers a very reliable, remotely executable XP vulnerability, and publishes it today, Microsoft will patch it in a few weeks," said Jason Fossen, a trainer for SANS and an expert on Microsoft security, in an August 2013 interview. "But if they sit on a vulnerability, the price for it could very well double. [So hackers] will be motivated to sit on them."

Fossen's thesis -- that cyber criminals would "bank" Windows XP vulnerabilities and put them to use only after April 8, 2014 -- was not his alone. Microsoft believed it, too.

Several times in the last 12 months, the Redmond, Wash. company warned Windows XP customers to get the lead out, ditch the creaky, leaky OS or face a certain surge in attacks. The most notable was in October 2013, when Tim Rains, director of Microsoft's Trustworthy Computing group, cited statistics from the firm's own telemetry to suggest that post-retirement Windows XP malware infection rates could jump dramatically.

So far, nothing.

To be fair, no one posted a timetable when XP would suffer additional slings and arrows, although Rains did predict late last year that in 2014 the operating system "will not be able to keep pace with attackers, and more Windows XP-based systems will get compromised." Safe bet.

In fact, a close look at the example Rains touted -- of Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2) -- showed that infection rates only truly spiked more than a year after it was retired and replaced by Windows XP SP3.

"If I could predict when the giant wave of XP bugs were going to hit, I could also surely predict this year's World Series winner," said Andrew Storms, director of DevOps at CloudPassage, a San Francisco security firm, when asked about the lack of public attacks.

 

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