Why is system hardening extremely important for Windows 7, Windows Vista and Windows XP? And what measures are there? Our guide has the answers.
Some operating systems just don’t die out
Windows XP was released in 2001, Windows Vista in 2006, and then Windows 7 in 2009. Although the three operating systems have many years under their belts, they are still in use around the world. According to NetMarketShare.com, as of February 2022, Windows XP had a market share of 0.5 percent, Windows Vista 0.01 percent and Windows 7 about 19.3 percent among all actively used computers with an Internet connection.
Behind the percentage figures are tens of millions of desktop PCs and notebooks. Millions of computers, each with a completely outdated OS. And thus millions of gateways that make it easy for hackers to steal data and sensitive information – not only from private users, but also from companies!
Windows XP, Windows Vista and Windows 7 continue to be used en masse by government agencies, banks, insurance companies, energy providers, retail stores, industrial companies or critical infrastructures. And – unfortunately – often with very little to no security.
When did the support for Windows 7, Vista and XP end?
There is no longer any support from Microsoft for all three operating systems. And this has been the case for many years in some cases.
- Microsoft discontinued support for the “normal” version of Windows XP back in 2014, and extended support for the embedded version expired in 2016.
- The mainstream support of Windows Vista was ended in 2012, and the last update for customers of the extended support was released in 2017.
- On January 14, 2020, Windows 7 was laid to rest, as support officially ended on that day. Only for companies and authorities that have a paid ESU (Extended Security Updates) license, Microsoft extends the support until January 2023.
Why is the end of support a problem?
When support for an operating system ends, it means that updates and patches no longer appear. Gaps and other vulnerabilities are no longer closed.
This means that Windows XP, Windows Vista and Windows 7 are no longer state of the art. They are not only old, but extremely insecure! Malware such as Trojans and Ransomware can easily be infiltrated by “cyber gangsters”.
If this happens, it is not a trivial offense in the case of companies! A breach of information security and data protection can be punished with high fines since the introduction of the GDPR.
In addition, compromises usually have far-reaching consequences: Computers and networks have to be “cleaned” or unlocked at great expense, data restored and customers reassured. An attack can have far-reaching consequences and, under certain circumstances, threaten the continued existence of a company.
The solution: System hardening for Windows XP and Co.
It would be best if all computers running Windows XP, Windows Vista and Windows 7 had been replaced years ago. But this is often not possible, especially in corporate use. For example, because there are too many computers and the immediate switch to new hardware and software would break IT budgets.
Another scenario: the old Windows versions are used in special systems that can only be upgraded with a great deal of effort or not at all.
In these cases, the company or authority must be aware that they are carrying a high risk. One that must be reduced as much as possible through measures. One solution to this is called system hardening.
How can Windows XP, Windows Vista and Windows 7 be hardened?
When hardening Windows XP, Windows Vista and Windows 7, vulnerable applications are uninstalled, critical services are deactivated and additional security measures are activated.
Specifically, these measures include, for example:
- Installation of the latest or most recent update for the respective Windows version.
- Deleting unsafe applications such as Flash and ActiveX.
- Replacing “retired” programs, for example Chrome instead of Internet Explorer and VLC Player instead of Windows Media Player.
- Reduction of autostart programs to the most necessary.
- Tightening the firewall, for example by disabling all network ports that are not needed.
- Preventing automatic startup of media such as CDs and USB sticks.
Enforcing a strong login and screensaver password.
- Use of encryption solutions such as Bitlocker or MBAM.
OS Hardening of Windows 7, Windows Vista and Windows XP is about disabling all unnecessary features to significantly reduce attack surfaces. This is especially true for outdated Windows computers that are still connected to the network. They pose the greatest danger – especially if they cannot be moved to secure environments.
What must never be forgotten
System hardening cannot compensate for the lack of support from Microsoft! Some security gaps and vulnerabilities still remain.
In other words, if a government agency or company is still using Windows XP, Windows Vista and Windows 7 today – even with hardening – , it represents an enormous source of danger. One that needs to be considered in risk management and noted in IT evidence requirements.
How can the status of hardening be determined?
The quickest way is with AuditTAP. The free tool checks how well a computer meets the system hardening recommendations of Microsoft and IT security authorities and organizations.
Note: This simple check with the AuditTAP only works with Windows 7 and higher, not with Windows Vista and Windows XP. For these operating systems, a manual audit must be performed.
Can Windows 7 and Windows XP be hardened by software?
Even system hardening of a single computer can be very time-consuming, as hundreds of settings have to be made. In an IT system landscape with dozens or hundreds of computers, the effort is multiplied. The solution is automated system hardening, for example with the Enforce Administrator.
However, there are no such professional solutions for outdated operating systems such as Windows XP, Windows 7 and Windows Vista. In this case, IT experts have to harden the corresponding desktop PCs and notebooks manually.
Do you need assistance with this? The team of FB Pro GmbH will be happy to assist you with words and deeds! We audit your systems, implement Windows hardening and perform regular system hardening to the highest standards.