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Windows XP Zombie Apocalypse May Come to China

Microsoft in China
Computer screens during a press conference displaying Microsoft's tablet computer and Windows 8 software, on Oct. 23, 2012 in Shanghai, China. Photographer: ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images

More than a quarter of the world's PCs rely on Windows XP, according to research firm Net Applications. How is it that a 12-year-old operating system has hung on for this long as the second-most-used in the world? Blame China.

Today is the last day Microsoft will monitor new holes that spring up in XP and issue software updates to fix them. You may have heard how that could affect ATMs, 95 percent of which are estimated to still run XP — though cash machines aren't as vulnerable to hackers as that stat implies. The real digital disaster could go down in the largest Internet market on the globe, and the effects would likely be felt around the world.

In China, some 200 million computers, or 70 percent of the country's PCs, are on Windows XP, according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency. The Chinese are making do with out-of-date hardware running insecure systems.

XP computers will continue to work after today, but without Microsoft patching vulnerabilities on a regular basis, the machines will become easy targets for hackers. Tom Murphy, Microsoft's director of communications for Windows, says cyber-security software offered by other companies isn't a good fall-back and encourages all XP users to upgrade immediately. Even the software makers that do continue to support XP probably won't do so for long, says Jerry Irvine, whose Chicago-based information-technology consulting firm has clients with operations in China.

"It's not just Microsoft that is stopping support of these computers, but third-party software makers are going to stop supporting their XP versions," says Irvine, the chief information officer at Prescient Solutions. "As new risks are defined, there will be nobody paying attention to them other than the hackers, and that's going to be a major risk. New vulnerabilities are found on a daily basis."

Many of the XP versions in circulation throughout China aren't legal. Software piracy is rampant there — so much so that Microsoft had to ask four government-owned companies in 2012 to stop their alleged use of illegitimate versions of Office. Microsoft doesn't advertise this fact, but the company does offer security updates to programs it knows are pirated. With support expiring for all XP-equipped PCs, the fallout could be massive in just a month or so, says Irvine.

China is "the largest source of intellectual-property theft," and organized cyber-criminals now have a new pool of Chinese victims to use for corporate espionage and other hacking efforts, Irvine says. These so-called zombie or bot machines together form a "botnet," which are controlled remotely and told to target servers or PCs that have high-value information or provide critical infrastructure.

"You'll find those devices becoming more prevalent in denial-of-service attacks," Irvine says. "They will become the zombies and the bots that will be infecting the rest of the world."

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