Windows 7 support officially ends on January 14, 2020. After that date, the only way to receive security updates from Microsoft for PCs running the out-of-support operating system is to pay a minimum of $50 per device for Extended Security Updates.
That's particularly bad timing for election officials in the United States, where 2020 is an election year and the memory of foreign interference in the 2016 Presidential election is still fresh.
An Associated Press analysis earlier this year found that "the vast majority of 10,000 election jurisdictions nationwide use Windows 7 or an older operating system to create ballots, program voting machines, tally votes and report counts." That count includes a significant number of brand-new systems in states that were highly contested in 2016.
Election officials who were still agonizing over their response can breathe a sigh of relief today, after Microsoft announced it would provide free security updates for those machines through the end of 2020.
Tom Burt, Microsoft's Corporate Vice President of Customer Security & Trust, made the announcement in a blog post today:
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.
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.
In July, Microsoft showed off a software development kit called ElectionGuard, which it is making available as open source for makers of voting machines. That software development kit (SDK) is now available on GitHub. The core SDK performs election functions such as vote encryption/decryption, key generation, and tallying. Other modules include tools for performing external, independent verification of election tallies and for designing ballot-marking devices.
That effort comes on the heels of separate account security tools that Microsoft and Google are offering to political parties and election officials in the European Union and Canada. (Microsoft's AccountGuard technology was already available in the United States and the United Kingdom.)
As part of today's announcement, Microsoft warned that the free update program does not apply to PCs used for standard business operations. For those PCs, Microsoft advised customers to upgrade to Windows 10 before the support deadline.