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11 Million Servers Have a July Expiration Date. Is Your Data Safe?

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Old car buffs know that it gets harder to maintain an old clunker as time goes by. Parts for a 1975 AMC Pacer just aren’t easy to find. You know what’s even harder? Finding “parts” for old software. You can hunt around eBay for a Pacer door handle. But you can’t get a security update for Windows XP. That means you actually can keep the old Pacer running, but you really can’t keep a WindowsXP box running.

You might recall the gnashing of teeth that occurred this time last year when Microsoft stopped supporting Windows XP. The firm’s warnings about this change are ominous.

“PCs running Windows XP after April 8, 2014, should not be considered to be protected,” it said.

This, in fact, is the future of all software — at least the way we make software today. It’s a dirty little secret of the digital age. We think data is forever, and in one sense, it can be. On the other hand, software should really come with an expiration date. It often does, if you know how to read between the lines. Microsoft calls it a “lifecycle.” That’s why this year’s gnashing of teeth involves Windows Server 2003, which will be issued its death certificate in July. That’s a problem for companies rather than individuals, but you get the idea. Microsoft’s lifecyle page lists the planned obsolescence of all the company’s operating systems. An estimated 11 million systems run on Windows Server 2003 and chances are your or my data is on more than one of them. Let’s hope they’re all aware of the July cutoff date, but the likelihood is that it got past a few of them.

In the normal course of life, this isn’t a problem for the vast majority of consumers. You probably haven’t owned a WindowsXP computer in a while. Old hardware dies, and new features arise, nudging most people to upgrade long before the software itself “dies.” (Though WindowsXP maintains a remarkably persistent small market share, according to Netmarketshare.com)

The problem is the dynamic nature of the digital world. You just can’t stand still, even for a year or two. If you are like me, you mostly need a computer to type on and perhaps watch a few videos. You didn’t need Word 2013, or even Word 2003. Heck, I use Notepad to write memos and stories half the time. But in the digital world, you can’t avoid the constant upgrades. They are a fact of life — as real as hackers trying to raid your computer and steal your identity.

This matters because you might think your personal data is safe today, and a company you work with might think your personal data is safe today — and both things might be true, yet your data might very well be unsafe tomorrow. In fact, that’s nearly certain to be true unless you or your company intervene somehow. That’s the nature of our dynamic, digital world.

One way this dynamism manifests itself: privacy settings. Most people install apps, like Facebook or kids’ games, make their privacy selections, and then never think about it again. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon recently examined this phenomenon and found that if they nudged users continuously, inviting users to examine the consequences of their selections, they often changed their privacy settings. Of course. When you install an app, you don’t really understand how it works, or how you’ll ultimately use it; and many apps, like Facebook, frequently change privacy settings or invent new features that need to be considered separately. Set-and-forget doesn’t work in the digital world.

Meanwhile, corporations that use today’s top-grade security software to protect your credit card information or Social Security number must be vigilant and learn when someone has hacked the software so they can turn to tomorrow’s top-grade security software.

If all this makes you feel like the world is moving beneath your feet, it is. For too long, we’ve discussed personal privacy in very black-and-white ways — you are either safe, or at risk. That’s just not how it works. Privacy and security are an ever-changing world of risk assessment. All you can do is make the best bet you can, over and over.

This is where my car analogy comes in handy. Nobody drives a car until it breaks down…well, no one should, anyway. Regular oil changes are essential — maybe not as frequent as your mechanic says, but they are essential. And so it is with your digital life. Don’t just check your credit once and forget about it; check it regularly, even monthly if you can (you can check it for free on Credit.com). Don’t install apps on your phone and forget about them: Go through them every three months or so and remove what you don’t need. Back up all your family photos and critical documents at least once each quarter. Change your online banking passwords at least once a year. Google yourself at least that often. And yes, buy new computers every 3-5 years. That gives you a chance at a digital fresh start.

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