What does an electronic safe and a undersea fiber optic cable-laying ship have in common? Both are still using Windows XP as their underlying operating system. As Microsoft releases Windows 10 this week and we start getting those annoying upgrade messages, it might be amusing to note exactly how hard it is to rid XP from the entire world. Killing off kudzu is probably easier.
The ship is the Rene Descartes and is laying the latest high-speed fiber on behalf of Google and a consortium of telecoms between Japan and Oregon. It promises to carry traffic at 60 Tbps when it is lit up next year. The ship uses Windows XP to drive its very sensitive GPS systems to lay the cable very precisely on the seabed. In shallower waters, the cable is buried by robotic shovels so that commercial fishing boats and sea life don’t accidentally cut the cord. My guess is that these systems were designed a long time ago when XP was the current OS and it isn’t easy to update them. The French mathematician Descartes would agree, after all he once said: “It is only prudent never to place complete confidence in that by which we have even once been deceived.” Also, with all the dough at stake does anyone want to try to mess with a newer OS?
Okay, you can see why XP is used there. But how about a Brinks safe? Most of the safes that I have seen are room-plus sized things that have very heavy doors and very little to do with computers. Brinks also sells a model called the CompuSafe Galileo, which runs software that keeps track of the money that is inserted into it over the course of the day. The notion is that having this software can make it easier for businesses to manage their cash deposits and make sure that no one has their hand in the till, so to speak. Think of this as the industrial-sized version of your banking smartphone app, where you don’t have to actually deposit a check and wait for it to clear but still get credit to your account. The Brinks safe (pictured below) does the same, and can free up time that a business would normally spend on counting the cash and reconciling it with its bank deposits.
However, the safe also runs Windows XP and what is worse, sports a USB port on the outside. At the DefCon conference this week, security researchers showed how they could reboot the safe and take control of its systems, and mess with its underlying Microsoft Access database to open its door and steal the money inside. Yes, you are reading this correctly. All it took was 100 lines of code to make this happen.
And while most of you know the Italian astronomer Galileo, you might not recall one of his more pity quotes: “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” Great words to live by, as Brinks struggles to remove those USB drives and make XP really operate in Safe Mode.