Massive security vulnerabilities affecting the majority of modern processors have been made public. The two vulnerabilities named Meltdown
and Spectre allow hackers to essentially steal data stored in the memory of the processor itself. This includes passwords, emails, cached files, and other data on various platforms such as personal computers, mobile devices, servers, and cloud infrastructure.
How is this done?
Hackers can accomplish this by exploiting the speculative execution of processors in order to read memory that is normally inaccessible. Speculative execution is a technique that allows the processor to perform tasks before it is known if it is needed. It does this with the assumption that those tasks are likely to be done and thus optimizes performance. If the task is verified to not be needed, then the operation is undone, and a new task is executed based on the appropriate conditions.
It is also important to note that the vulnerability is based on a flaw in how processors operate on a hardware level. There will be no easy fix and software patches may only provide a workaround by avoiding or reducing the use of certain operations. The side-effect of doing this may cause a decrease in performance to ensure security. Time will tell if manufacturers can provide patches while avoiding significant performance degradation.
Who is being impacted?
Meltdown seems to affect Intel processors and Spectre is impacting processors from Intel, AMD, and ARM. As previously stated, this then ripples across a wide-scale of platforms since the majority of devices use these processors. There are also no known exploits of the vulnerabilities yet, and execution of the exploit is complex. Intel CEO Brian Kranich has addressed this to CNBC with the following.
“We’ve found no instances of anybody actually executing this exploit,” he said, adding that the fixes being tested now will prevent future attacks from bad actors.
“I mean, it’s very hard — we can’t go out and check every system out there,” he added. “But when you take a look at the difficulty it is to actually go and execute this exploit — you have to get access to the systems, and then access to the memory and operating system — we’re fairly confident, given the checks we’ve done, that we haven’t been able to identify an exploit yet.”
What should you do?
Security updates should be applied immediately from software companies such as Microsoft, Apple, and other vendors.
Additional technical details can be found here: Project Zero’s blog post