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Microsoft announced last week that it will extend free security support for election offices with systems running Windows 7 – offering relief beyond a planned “end of life” for the operating system early next year which left many in the election community concerned about what that meant for the 2020 election.
The company had this to say in a blog post last Friday:
Today, as part of Microsoft’s Defending Democracy Program, we are announcing that we will provide free security updates for federally certified voting systems running Windows 7 through the 2020 elections, even after Microsoft ends Windows 7 support…
We launched Windows 7 in 2009, the same year the Palm Pre launched, Twitter took off, mobile phone navigation was just coming to market, and floppy disks were still selling by the millions. Software built for that era cannot provide the same level of security as a modern operating system like Windows 10. When we released Windows 7, we committed to supporting it for 10 years, and we’ve honored that commitment. We’ve also reminded customers about this along the way including, most recently, in January and again in March. This process is similar to how we’ve ended support for other operating systems in the past, and the majority of our customers have already made the move to Windows 10.
As we head into the 2020 elections, we know there is a relatively small but still significant number of certified voting machines in operation running on Windows 7. We also know that transitioning to machines running newer operating systems in time for the 2020 election may not be possible for a number of reasons, including the lengthy voting machine certification process – a process we are working with government officials to update and make more agile…
As a next step in protecting the 2020 elections, the Defending Democracy Program will make extended security updates available for free to federally certified voting systems running Windows 7. We will do this through the end of 2020, both in the United States and in other democratic countries, as defined by the EIU Democracy Index, that have national elections in 2020 and express interest. We are also working with major manufacturers that have sold voting machines running Windows 7 to ensure any security updates provided to these systems are successful.
As the Associated Press reports, the free upgrades will still require election offices to incur costs associated with loading the updates – and don’t address the issue of required recertification:
Windows 7 reaches its “end of life” on Jan. 14, meaning Microsoft stops providing free technical support and producing “patches” to fix software vulnerabilities, which hackers can exploit. Cash-strapped election officials are scrambling to address this issue and what’s essentially a one-year extension on additional costs.
The promise of free updates does not address the cost of putting them in place or the time and cost of certifying such changes to a voting system. Fixing a new vulnerability requires that the companies resubmit the voting system for recertification, which can take weeks or even months.
The Election Assistance Commission, which had heard testimony about the issues as part of a recent forum on election security, praised the decision in a joint statement from all four Commissioners:
“Microsoft’s announcement is welcome news and provides important free support for the nation’s election community as it prepares for the 2020 Presidential Election. Election administrators and advocates had rightly voiced concern that budget limitations would hinder their ability to pay for extended Windows 7 support and could lead to election security challenges. Voters can now cast their ballots with confidence knowing that Microsoft and the election community have worked together to reach a suitable and necessary resolution to this pressing issue.”
This announcement is likely welcome news for the election offices grappling with what to do about Windows 7 – but it will still require significant effort to apply the updates and ensure that the resulting systems are certified and ready to go for 2020. Here’s to Microsoft for making this commitment to the nation’s election community … now, the real work begins. Stay tuned.