Meltdown and spectre are shocking the world: here’s what you need to know about the security vulnerabilities now

The security vulnerabilities in several processors known as Meltdown and Spectre are shocking the IT world. They make it clear that processors, which are used billions of times, have been insecure for years. At least: First manufacturers already reacted with security updates – among them Microsoft for Windows 10 (in the video).

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Meltdown and Spectre describe a total of three security vulnerabilities that affect a majority of processors manufactured in the last few decades by virtually all major ones. Exploiting the gaps, attackers have the possibility to read most sensitive data. An overview of the most important questions and answers:

What is special about this vulnerability?

The vulnerability lies in a common function of the processor, the heart of any computer device. In the chip, the computing work is done. Programs must trust it – and via the discovered gap, the processor can offer attackers a way to a veritable treasure trove of data. So it could become something like a Greatest Probable Accident for the computer industry – because some chips may not be protected at all, but can only be replaced.

What makes the attacks possible?

Processors have been trimmed for decades to become faster and faster. One of the ideas was to retrieve data that might be needed later beforehand, so that there are no delays afterwards. As it now turns out, however, this procedure can be tricked out so that the data can be skimmed.

Which chips are affected?

Because the core of the problem is an industry-wide practice, chips from a wide variety of vendors are also vulnerable, and billions of devices are at stake. At industry giant Intel, it’s potentially almost all processors since 1995, according to the researchers who discovered the problem. But also some processors with technology of the chip designer Arm, which dominates in smartphones, are among them. Intel competitor AMD says its chips are safe thanks to their technical solutions, but researchers stressed they could have attacked them too.

Nobody knows who is already using Spectre and Meltdown

Manufacturers are trying to protect against Spectre and Meltdown with security updates. In the long run, however, only new, more secure processors will solve the problems

Photo: Getty Images

Which attack possibilities have become known so far?

The researchers published information on two attack scenarios. The one where information can be tapped from the operating system, they christened "Meltdown". So far, it has only been detected on Intel chips. The second "Spectre", lets other programs spy. This attack is more difficult to implement – but also more difficult to protect against. Almost all modern processors are vulnerable, they say. "Spectre" According to the researchers, it worked on chips from Intel, AMD and with Arm technology. However, Arm says only a few product lines are affected.

Has this vulnerability already been exploited?

"We don’t know.", explain the security researchers succinctly. An attack would also leave no traces in the log files commonly used so far, they warn. Intel assumes that there had been no attacks so far. Microsoft also said, "We have not yet received any information indicating that these vulnerabilities have been exploited to attack our users." Due to the high prerequisite hurdles, a mass attack is not to be expected in the future, according to Thomas Uhlemann, security expert at ESET. The gap presupposed some time-consuming preconditions.

Who is potentially most affected?

Which operating system is used is completely irrelevant for the security gap "even if updates and patches are or will be available for Windows, MacOS, Linux and Android", said Uhlemann. He estimates that servers, smartphones and Internet of Things devices, as well as routers, are likely to be most affected. "For targeted attacks on industrial companies or data centers, with the aim of cyber espionage, the exploitation of the gap is certainly more interesting."

What would be the worst horror scenario?

It is likely that attackers could use chips from servers in data centers to obtain a large amount of foreign data. This would be possible, for example, on devices on which several different systems run side by side in so-called virtual machines. The categorical assessment of the American IT security authority CERT that the vulnerability can only be fixed by replacing the affected chips is also fundamentally worrying.

There is also good news?

The vulnerability was discovered and reported to companies back in June, giving them time to develop countermeasures. Google, Microsoft and Amazon secured their cloud services. In fact, the problem became public even earlier than planned: actually, the industry was not going to disclose the vulnerability and its measures until 9. January make public. But already in the past days an increased update activity was noticed – and first reports about a vulnerability in Intel chips made the rounds.

Manufacturers respond with security updates

What users can do?

They can’t eliminate the actual vulnerability, after all, it’s deep inside the processor. Even more urgently than ever, users should make sure that they install all available security updates on all devices and keep the software they use up to date.

For which systems has the gap been closed so far??

In the case of "Meltdown-Patches for the Linux and Windows operating systems have been released and the vulnerability is said to have been at least partially closed in the latest update of Apple’s macOS system. The Android mobile system is also secure with the latest security update, according to Google. However, most Android devices are not at the very latest level.

If the procedure should make the chips faster – then do the countermeasures make them slower?

Yes – however, Intel explained that in most cases the drop in performance should not exceed two percent. In first media reports there was still talk of up to 30 percent. According to Uhlemann, the performance losses are "in the (milli)second range" and would hardly be of any importance. An interesting question is whether the patches could noticeably slow down the servers in data centers, which are working at high capacity.

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