The End of Windows XP

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Windows XP support has ended and there will be no more patches.

This ongoing news story has repeatedly stressed that millions of computers that run the operating system Windows XP will no longer receive automatic security updates or protection against new viruses. This means that the 12 year-old system could leave behind security holes for users who haven’t upgraded.

Who or What Uses XP?

ATMs and Point of Sale Systems are the most public facing places, but what will the end of Windows XP mean for all of the unseen places it lives?

In a recent article, we explored the vulnerabilities in airline transportation, we also thought what other areas in transportation could be at risk through vulnerabilities. One to note is the FIRE (Functionality Integrated Railroad Electronics) locomotive display and cab computer which incidentally is built on a Microsoft Windows embedded XP. This advanced system is designed to assist the locomotive management with safety and crew operations and it also aides the engineer’s management of the locomotive’s performance. This FIRE system has desirable vulnerabilities for a hacker — 802.11b Wi-Fi and cellular GPRS backup. Without an active Wi-Fi defense, a Wi-Fi hacking tool like GrimWepa could easily infect this system and once infected the train could communicate with a hacker over cellular.

windowsxpThe train and locomotive system threats vary. One consideration is that train control software has a software developer kit – which enables third parties to build code for the locomotive. If the system was hacked, this software and any accompanying protocol could be exposed.
Through the communication system, freight cars transmit safety alarms and status information to the locomotive as well as receive commands and information requests from the locomotive. If the system were publicly known there is the potential for someone to overwrite it. A scary scenario would be for this system to be overridden to NOT transmit alarms. What if this system turned off the brakes while pinning the accelerator open? This one example of a public safety threat as a result of OS changes is just as terrifying as the financial loss angle frequently being reported.

“What If” Someone Looked at the Cyber Warfare Aspect?

There are many other systems out there that use embedded Windows XP and there is the risk that exploiting other Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) system exploits could cause massive damage. A similar occurrence of this was Stuxnet. Stuxnet was a virus that attacked an operating system and targeted industrial control systems. It was recognized as an intentional act of cyber warfare against Iran and it reportedly ruined almost one-fifth of the country’s nuclear centrifuges.

Exploiting critical SCADA systems is a very serious threat as it seems to me that industrial systems are the most fragile in production environments and are often are not being upgraded or maintained.

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