News comes overnight that the Windows XP source code has been leaked. The Verge says they have “verified the material as legitimate” and that the leak also includes Windows Server 2003 and some DOS and CE code as well. The thing is, it has now been more than six years since Microsoft dropped support for XP, does it really matter if the source code is made public?
The Poison Pill
As Erin Pinheiro pointed out in her excellent article on the Nintendo IP leak earlier this year (perhaps the best Joe Kim artwork of the year on that one, by the way), legitimate developers can’t really make use of leaked code since it opens them up to potential litigation. Microsoft has a formidable legal machine that would surely go after misuse of the code from a leak like this. Erin mentions in her article that just looking at the code is the danger zone for competitors.
Even if other software companies did look at the source code and implement their own improvements without crossing the legal line, how much is there still to gain? Surely companies with this kind of motivation would have reverse engineered the secret sauce of the long dead OS by now, right?
Spy vs. Spy
The next thing that comes to mind are the security implications. At the time of writing, statcount pegs Windows XP at a 0.82% market share which is still going to be a very large number of machines. Perhaps a better question to consider is what types of machines are still running it? I didn’t find any hard data to answer this question, however there are dedicated machines like MRIs that don’t have easy upgrade paths and still use the OS and there is an embedded version of XP that runs on point-of-sale, automated teller machines, set-top boxes, and other long-life hardware that are notorious for not being upgraded by their owners.
From both the whitehat and blackhat side, source code is a boon for chasing down vulnerabilities. Is there more to be gained by cracking the systems or submitting bug fixes? The OS is end of life, however Microsoft has shown that a big enough security threat still warrants a patch like they did with a remote desktop protocol vuln patch in May of 2019. I wonder if any of this code is still used in Windows 10, as that would make it a juicy tool for security researchers.
As for dangerous information in the leak, there have been some private keys found, like the NetMeeting root certificate. But its hard to say how much of a risk keys like this are due to the age of the software. You should stop using NetMeeting for high-security video conferencing if you haven’t already… it was end of life thirteen years ago so there’s nothing surprising there.
You Just Might Learn Something
I think the biggest news with a leak of code like this is the ability to learn from it. Why do people look at the source code of open source projects? Sure, you might be fixing a bug or adding a feature, but a lot times it’s to see how other coders are doing things. It’s the apprenticeship program of the digital age and having source code of long-dead projects both preserves how things were done for later research, and lets the curious superstars of tomorrow hone their skills at the shoulder of the masters.
Like a Museum Vouching for the Legitimacy of Artifacts
Why don’t company’s get out in front of this and publish end-of-life code as open source? This would vouch for the validity of the code. As it stands, how do you verify leaked code acquired from the more dimly lit corners of the Internet? Publishing the official source code for end of life projects preserves the history, something the Internet age has never given much thought to, but we should. We’ve heard the company promoting the message that Microsoft loves open source, here’s another great chance to show that by releasing the source code since it’s already out there from this leak. It would be a great step to do so now, and an even better one to take before leaks happen with future end of life products.
This is a pie-in-the-sky idea that we often trot out when we encounter stories of IoT companies that go out of business and brick their hardware on their way out. In those cases, the source code would allow users to roll their own back-end services that no longer exist, but Microsoft would be likely to frown on a “LibreWinXP” project based on their own code. It’s likely that the company still has a few long-term contracts to provide support for entities using XP hardware.
So What Do You Think?
This is Ask Hackaday so we want to know your take on this. When old source code leaks, is it a bad thing? Are there any compelling reasons for keeping the source code from projects that have seen their last sunset a secret? And now that the XP code is out there somewhere, what do you think may come for it? Weigh in below!