Safe Browsing: 6. Operating Systems

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6. Operating Systems

Not all malware comes from the Internet. Sometimes it arrives in emails or from files on a flash drive. Most malware targets your operating system because that gives the hacker the most control and criminal opportunities. The simple rule of thumb is – the older the Operating System (OS), the more vulnerable it is to being hacked. Why? Two big reasons:

  1. Older software predates the explosive growth of the internet and thus was never coded to prevent these kinds of exploits. Yes, that includes Macs and Linux OSes, too, not just Windows.
  2. The older the OS, the longer hackers have had to study its vulnerabilities and develop malicious code to hack into them.

So, the very best thing you can do for general system safety is upgrade the OS. It is also the most difficult thing to do because your existing hardware and software may not be compatible with the newest OS.

Legacy Windows Operating Systems

I have Google Analytics set up on HASA to help me understand how visitors use the site.  Looking at operating system usage over the last year, I see that 83% of HASA visitors over the last year are using some flavor of the Windows OS. A very small number (1.5%) of those visits were made with pre-XP operating systems, such as Windows 2000, Windows NT and Windows 98. Sadly, there is not a lot you can do with a system this old. Modern anti-virus programs may not run on them and newer browser versions may not, either.  The best remedy for you is to upgrade to a newer OS. This may not be possible, for example on your machine at work.

XP, Vista, Windows 7

If you are running one of these three OSes, you're in much better shape. While it is popular to bash all Windows OSes as buggy and insecure, the truth is these OSes are as secure as other comparably aged OSes. In fact, it doesn't take that much effort to secure your Windows OS.

If you are running XP, be sure to install Service Pack 3 (SP3) on your system immediately. Versions of XP that do not have SP3 installed will soon lose support because XP is an End OF Life (EOL) product. Information about getting SP3 can be found here: 

http://support.microsoft.com/kb/322389

One of the best trends I have observed on HASA over the year is the increase of Windows 7 (Win7) use, and declines in the use of Vista and XP. If you control your own machine and can afford the upgrade to Win7, I strongly advise doing so. It has different architecture than XP, which allows it to be more secure, use system hardware and memory more efficiently, and support newer technologies more easily. It has better driver support than Vista, which pretty much eliminates unexplained crashes and memory problems that have dogged Vista.

I have read some very critical articles claiming that upgrading to Win7 is difficult. My direct experience of Win7 does not support this claim.

  • I have upgraded two machines of my own to Win7 – a 5 year-old XP box and a 1 year old Vista laptop – with no problems. In fact, both of my systems run much faster and problem free under Win7 than under XP or Vista.
  • I have 15 work colleagues who have successfully upgraded one or more machines with no problems.
  • I have 35+ work colleagues (some overlapping the first group) who have purchased Win7 preinstalled on new machines and have no problems.
  • Every one of my customers' IT departments is planning to upgrade to Win7 as soon as their budgets will allow.
  • I read industry survey news that indicates the overwhelming majority of Win7 adopters are satisfied with their new OS.
  • The statistics say that Win7 is the most swiftly adopted operating system in the history of computing, with over 100 million installs in less than 1 year.

While I do not doubt that there have been some upgrade failures with Win7, the evidence I have does not support a general claim that there is anything wrong with the OS.

So, if you are a Windows user and are inclined to upgrade your operating system, Win7 is a solid choice. Here is the Microsoft page comparing the four versions of Win7:

http://windows.microsoft.com/en-us/windows7/products/compare?T1=tab20 .

If you are not inclined to upgrade or you are unable to do so at this time, then you will need to take extra steps to secure your system and be aware of your system's greater vulnerability.

Ang's Personal Opinion – Win7 rocks. It is the best desktop OS I have ever used and, yes, I have used OSX and Linux.  If you are someone who uses your machine intensely for programming, office documents, heavy-duty research, graphics, database work, gaming, etc., you will love it. It is the best OS upgrade from MS ever, and I've been working with them since DOS 3.

I think the Professional version is the best buy because it includes something called "XP Mode", which is an XP system running in a virtual machine inside of Win7. The XP Mode allows me to keep running older software (pre-2005) that I'm not ready to discard or replace. This can reduce the cost of upgrading because you don't immediately need to go out and buy Win7 compatible software. End opinion.

Other OSes

Mac users account for slightly less than 14% of HASA visits, Linux users are not quite 1.5%, and the remaining 3.5% of visits are split among 14 different devices, mostly phones. For each of these operating systems, my advice is the same as for Windows – look at how old your system is. If it is more than 5 years old, you need to upgrade if you are able to do so. I know there was a very large upgrade gap for Mac users in the move from 9 to 10 on the OS, but subsequent upgrades do not appear to be so dramatic. The Linux statistics do not give me a breakdown on the distro (Ubuntu, Mint, Red Hat, etc.), but if you are running Linux, then you should be familiar with how to do builds. Ubuntu has a new version out that is getting quite a bit of attention and praise in the press.

For non-PC devices, like phones, PDAs, Wii and Playstation (Yes, people browse HASA using Wii and Playstation), you may or may not be able to upgrade your OS. Check your manufacturer's site for more information.

For those who proudly proclaim that only Windows is affected by malware and all other operating systems are invulnerable, I'll repeat what every security person on the planet says: There is no such thing as an unhackable system. Shell code exploits can work on any OS. If you are certain your system cannot be hacked, all I can say is I hope you are right.

Your next step is to update your OS and programs. 


This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.

Story Information

Author: Anglachel

Status: General

Completion: Complete

Era: Other

Genre: Research Article

Rating: General

Last Updated: 06/19/10

Original Post: 06/14/10

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