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Meltdown and Spectre: Why Your Computer’s Processor is its Newest Achilles’ Heel

17 January 2018

Over the third and fourth quarter of 2017, there was a notable spike in the emergence of dangerous malware. The unknown orchestrators of global ransomware attacks such as the famed WannaCry demonstrated that their reach is far beyond what anyone could have anticipated.

Recent vulnerabilities that have been discovered in modern processors show that the danger of being affected is more real than we thought. Meltdown and Spectre are two exploits that are designed to take advantage of these critical weak links in our computers’ processors.

These exploits affect not only computer processors but can also be used on mobile devices such as smartphones, and cloud-based systems such as cloud servers. Going by the research, they could be a huge problem for security experts for a long time to come.

Meltdown

The first exploit is considered to be the frailer of the two. However, Meltdown is capable of penetrating through the crucial isolation that exists between the user applications on your computer and its operating system. When a benign application uses this exploit, it is capable of gaining access to your computer’s memory and consequently obtaining sensitive data such as the passwords stored in your browser, your credit card numbers, and other personal information.

Meltdown facilitates the leakage of sensitive user data on computers with vulnerable processors. Although antiviruses are virtually useless against the exploit, there are software patches that can be used to mitigate it.

Spectre

Spectre is considered far more difficult to handle than Meltdown. While Meltdown can facilitate arbitrary data leakage, Spectre breaks down the isolation between all the different applications on the computer, and therefore, malware using this exploit can gain access to sensitive information stored in specific applications.

As the research has shown, error-free programs are highly susceptible to this vector of attack. This is despite their safety checks, which, as the experts note, increase the attack area significantly. As problematic as it is to deal with, fortunately, software patches against Spectre-based exploits are available as well.

Can they affect you?

The chances of getting your sensitive data leaked via one or both of these exploits are significantly high. All Intel processors built after 1995, with the exception of the pre-2013 Intel Atom and Intel Itanium, can be affected by Meltdown. For ARM processors, only a few fall under the scope of those affected, while it remains unclear whether there are any AMD processors that possess this weakness.

In addition to the aforementioned Intel processors, Spectre also affects AMD and ARM processors. This makes it marginally more dangerous than Meltdown. As for cloud providers, systems with Xen PV and unpatched Intel processors are susceptible. This list extends to cloud providers that depend on containers sharing a single kernel. Listed kernels include LXC, Docker, and OpenVZ.

The two exploits can be used to leak information from PCs, laptops, servers and mobile devices. Fortunately, there are fixes that prevent these weaknesses from being exploited.

It is not advisable to store sensitive information in unpatched systems as there is a considerable risk of having your sensitive data accessed by malicious parties.

For more information, including academic papers, patches, videos, and proof-of-concept code, visit https://meltdownattack.com/ or leave us a comment below. We’d love to hear from you!

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