The Vulnerabilities of Outdated Operating Systems

Keeping your computer’s operating system up-to-date is rudimentary to keeping the system secure. Why? Whether your computer is built around a Windows, Mac, Unix, or Linux-based operating system (OS), the developers of the operating system – whether maintained commercially or through open source communities – are attempting to enhance the capabilities, features, and most importantly the security of the system. When a manufacturer releases a new OS, they are not just looking to profit from a new product, they are striving to produce and distribute a better product. In fact the latest trend this past year in commercial operating systems released by top corporations in the industry (i.e., Apple and Microsoft) is to provide consumers with FREE upgrades to the latest operating system. This means that corporations are not even profiting from the distribution of their latest system. So why not upgrade your computers’ operating systems when there are no financial costs involved?

Going back to why developers change operating systems on a regular and ongoing basis; while it has everything to do with business, only a fraction is about profits. One of the greatest advantages with a free market is that businesses will compete to produce a better, more desirable product. While competing to improve products, in this case, operating systems, the developers strive to enhance virtually all aspects of a system, including but definitely not limited to its security features. This is not an article on economics, but on why users should focus on the benefits in upgrading computers’ operating systems, instead of the drawbacks, and how upgrading the OS may improve the security of the computer and the user’s data it stores.

Often users have kept computers on the same operating system (usually the OS pre-installed when the computer was purchased) for years and even decades. Non-technical users will hesitate to upgrade the OS in order to avoid making any changes that might break the computer, or worse – might rearrange the desktop, menus, and toolbars in such a manner that it is difficult for the user to navigate or utilize. We get it, change is scary. When desktops and menus change appearance, and options are relocated, it can be hard to adjust to the new layout. Yet, if a user can overcome the temporary inconveniences of navigating a new operating system, he or she will experience the comforts and assurances that come with the upgrade.

Over a period of time, the number of exploits into any (and every) type of OS will increase thanks to penetration testers, hackers, and malware developers. The truth of the matter is that the longer a system is in circulation, the longer programmers have been attempting to exploit it through hacks, cracks, malware, and other tricks. It is a never-ending game of breaching and patching a system that makes it more secure. The problem with legacy operating systems – note, the word legacy is meant to describe a product that is no longer supported by the manufacturer – is that any newly discovered vulnerabilities in the system will never be patched or secured. Security vulnerabilities can allow attackers and/or malware to bypass network protocols, execute remote codes, escalate access privileges to system programs and files, disclose or collect user profile information, corrupt system drivers or files, cause a denial of service, and perform other activities that could harm the user, the system, and/or application(s).

When an OS reaches the end-of-life date set by the manufacturer, there will be no more resources or support available to maintain the retired system. The manufacturer will invest its resources in a new(er) system or product. Thus, when a manufacturer retires a system, so should the users. Users that keep their computers’ OS upgraded and up-to-date will have access to multiple types of patches for vulnerabilities, including:

  1. Definition Updates. Definitions added to system databases are used to detect malicious code, phishing websites, and/or junk mail (spam).
  2. Security Updates. An update will include patches or fixes for a product-specific, security-related vulnerability.
  3. Service Packs (Windows-only). A service pack consists of a batch of cumulative hotfixes, security updates, critical and non-critical updates.

A computer that has a supported OS can access the latest definition/security updates and service packs that are tested and released by the developers. Users that do not upgrade their computers’ operating systems, which have reached end-of-life, are leaving their computers and data at risk of being compromised.