Endpoint protection pitched as alternative for unpatchable EOL Windows systems

Companies struggling to upgrade unsupported, vulnerable Windows versions are finding new hope for securing those platforms in endpoint security solutions that detect exploit techniques over specific signatures, one security expert has advised.

The approach had, Palo Alto Networks cybersecurity strategist Sebastian Goodwin told CSO Australia, proved invaluable both in environments where inertia had prevented the broad migration from end-of-life platforms like Windows XP and Windows Server 2003 – both of which are no longer officially supported by Microsoft and have become honeypots for hackers developing new and undetectable exploits.

Migration difficulties, as well as mandates to retain data for many years, “mean you have a system that doesn't get security patches anymore but that are highly vulnerable,” Goodwin explained as Palo Alto brought its Traps endpoint-protection platform to the ANZ region a year after the new platform debuted in the United States.

With major banks, European ATMs, Victorian government agencies and a range of other companies still using exploitable endpoints – and often paying for the privilege of continued security patches – Goodwin said, platforms like Traps could be used to extend the functional life of those environments by securing them in a different way.

This was because the platform focuses not on conventional signature-based protection, but taps into a large and growing base of specific exploit characteristics that would allow endpoint-protection tools to pick up on malware behaviour before it becomes an issue.

“If you're running an operating system that can't be patched for whatever reason, Traps is the perfect solution to extend the viability and secure life of that system,” he said, noting that the first year of using the tool in the US had seen it survive scrutiny by systems-security auditors.

“We had one customer call and say that they have a server farm they cannot patch, but that patching was required by their auditors,” he explained. “At the end of the day, the auditors accepted [Traps] and passed the audit; it's considered a compensating control in that it doesn't do exactly what the regulation said, but met the end objective of what the regulation is trying to achieve – which is to make the system not vulnerable to exploits.”

Although the installed base of Windows XP and Windows Server 2003 systems is steadily shrinking as companies migrate away from the platform, the lingering installed base is becoming a particular concern in process-automation, control, point-of-sale and other systems that were often installed years ago – even with now-outdated antivirus software – on a more or less set-and-forget basis.

“Each industry has its own specific use case, but a lot of these systems are still running on old, outdated OSes like Windows XP, which leaves them super vulnerable to attack,” Goodwin said.

“Many of these advanced threats are bypassing legacy antivirus software that we've all relied on for many decades, but that technology has not kept up at all in terms of preventing these attacks. It's important to have something there that can block the unknown threats that are attacking endpoints.”

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