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Risks arise as XP support ends

Microsoft’s final security update will tempt hackers

Bill Gates promoted the Windows XP operating system when it was released in 2001. The operating system has had a longer-than-expected life span.

Associated Press/Richard Drew/File

Bill Gates promoted the Windows XP operating system when it was released in 2001. The operating system has had a longer-than-expected life span.

NEW YORK — Microsoft will end support for the persistently popular Windows XP on Tuesday, but with an estimated 30 percent of businesses and consumers still using the 12-year-old operating system, the move could put everything from the operations of heavy industry to the identities of everyday people in danger.

‘‘What once was considered low-hanging fruit by hackers now has a big neon bull’s eye on it,’’ said Patrick Thomas, a security consultant at the San Jose, Calif., firm Neohapsis.

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Microsoft has released a handful of Windows operating systems since 2001, but XP’s popularity and the durability of the computers it was installed on kept it around longer than expected. Analysts say that if a PC is more than five years old, chances are it’s running XP.

While users can still run XP after Tuesday, Microsoft will no longer provide security updates, issue fixes to nonsecurity-related problems, or offer online technical content updates. The company says it will provide antimalware-updates through July 14, 2015, but warns that the tweaks could be of limited help on an outdated operating system.

Most industry observers say they recognize that the time for Microsoft to end support for such a dated system has come, but the move poses both security and operational risks for users. In addition to home computers, XP is used to run everything from water treatment facilities and power plants to small businesses like doctor’s offices.

Thomas said XP appealed to a wide variety of people and businesses that saw it as a reliable workhorse, and many chose to stick with it instead of upgrading to Windows Vista, Windows 7, or Windows 8.

Thomas noted that companies that don’t like risk,generally don’t like change. As a result, companies most likely to still be using XP include banks and financial services companies, along with health care providers. He also pointed to schools from the university level down, saying that they often don’t have enough money to fund equipment upgrades.

Marcin Kleczynski, chief executive of Malwarebytes, said that without patches to fix bugs in the software, XP computers will be prone to freezing up and crashing, while the absence of updated security related protections make them susceptible to hackers.

He added that future security patches released for Microsoft’s newer systems will serve as a way for nefarious people to reverse engineer ways to breach now-unprotected Windows XP computers.

Mark Bernardo, general manager of automation software at General Electric Co.’s Intelligent Platforms division, said moving to a new operating system can be extremely complicated and expensive for industrial companies. Bernardo said many of his unit’s customers fall into the fields of water and waste water, along with oil and gas.

‘‘Even if their sole network is completely sealed off from attack, there are still operational issues to deal with,’’ he said.

Meanwhile, many small businesses are put off by the cost of upgrading or just aren’t focused on their IT needs.

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