Windows XP support cutoff poses data breach risk for retailers

Symantec said retailers running Windows XP-based POS terminals will soon face an increased attack risk

Retailers will face an increased risk of data breaches after Microsoft ends support for Windows XP, a version of which powers the majority of modern cash registers, security vendor Symantec warned in a report published Monday.

Many point-of-sale (POS) devices run the Windows XP version of Windows Embedded, a scaled-down version of the operating system designed for devices such as set-top boxes and vehicle computers. Microsoft will no longer provide security patches for Windows XP as of April 8, when it ends support for the 13-year-old OS.

"This event will certainly place POS operators under increased risk of a successful attack, and POS operators should already have mitigation plans in place to meet this coming deadline," Symantec's 12-page report said.

Cybercriminals installed malware on the systems of Target and Neiman Marcus, which collected unencrypted payment card details after a customer's card was swiped. In December, Target said 40 million payment card records were compromised plus 70 million other records, making it one of the largest reported data breaches on record.

Neiman Marcus said up to 1.1 million cards were compromised between July and October 2013 but opted to notify all customers who have shopped at its stores since January 2013.

RSA, the security division of enterprise software vendor EMC, said on Thursday it found 119 POS terminals belonging to 45 retailers, 32 of which are based in the U.S., may be infected with malicious software.

Since the POS terminals run Windows, it's easy for hackers to repurpose other Windows malware to suite their needs, Symantec wrote.

"This means that attackers do not need specialized skills in order to target POS systems," it wrote.

Security experts theorize that POS hackers are either attacking the terminals directly from the Internet or are finding another way into company networks by exploiting other software vulnerabilities.

Companies handling payment card data are required by Visa and MasterCard to follow industry security practices, known as the Payment Card Industry (PCI) Data Security Standard (DSS). Those standards recommend but do not require retailers to isolate networks that handle card data, termed the cardholder data environment (CDE), Symantec wrote.

POS systems must be accessible for software updates, the export of business data such as purchase orders and inventory, and to connect with external payment processors, the report said.

"While a strictly controlled and completely isolated POS system network would be quite secure, it is too impractical for serious consideration," it said.

Orla Cox, senior manager of Symantec's Security Intelligence Delivery, wrote on the company's blog that card theft attacks are likely to continue because "stolen card data has a limited shelf life."

"Credit card companies are quick to spot anomalous spending patterns, as are observant card owners," she wrote. "This means that criminals need a steady supply of 'fresh' card numbers."

Send news tips and comments to jeremy_kirk@idg.com. Follow me on Twitter: @jeremy_kirk

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