SPECTRE AND MELTDOWN – THE LATEST THREATS TO COMPUTERS WORLDWIDE
Two new vulnerabilities (referred to as Spectre and Meltdown) that affect processing chips in billions of systems around the world were made public in early January. These chips can be found in a wide range of devices, including all computers, tablets and smartphones.
WHAT IS THIS THREAT?
The core of the operating system in your computer (known as the kernel) is responsible for coordinating and moving data between different types of memory (RAM, disc, cache) as required by programs or for storage. The processor’s own memory (known as ‘cache memory’). It is when data is moved to this cache memory that these reported vulnerabilities can occur.
Spectre has programs perform random operations to leak data that should be confidential, whilst Meltdown collects information, snooping on memory used by the kernel.
WILL A PATCH FOR SPECTRE & MELTDOWN CAUSE A SLOWDOWN?
Some experts are suggesting that the performance of patched computers could be degraded by as much as 30%. However, an effect of this magnitude is only likely to affect computers that are handling large numbers of database queries simultaneously.
There will be some performance loss but for the most part it will not be noticeable – especially on standard desktop and laptop computers.
AM I AT RISK?
In both cases direct access to the device is required. Meltdown and Spectre themselves do not provide access. Therefore a separate piece of malware is required in the device for Spectre and Meltdown to be exploited.
Also, because we are talking about cached data, and because caches are relatively small, the actual exposure at any one point in time is very limited. Consequently because of this complexity it is only cyber gangs or state hackers that might have the ability to piece bits together to create something intelligible. The chances of them using their resources on SMEs is negligible.
No exploits of Meltdown or Spectre have yet been seen in the open (as opposed to lab proof of principle).
WHEN WILL PATCHES BE AVAILABLE?
Microsoft has already issued patches for the Windows 10 operating system. Users of Windows 7 & Windows 8 will receive similar updates shortly.
Patching Spectre will be more problematic due to the way it works. This ideally needs a processor change. i.e. hardware upgrade and this is unlikely in most circumstances. Other software that lives on an operating system will need to change to prevent exploitation.
There is no reason to worry unduly or to panic. Firstly if you keep your anti-virus software and all patches up to date and are:
- careful about which sites you access
- careful about attachments you open
- ignore tempting fishing emails
and consequently prevent intrusive access to your devices then there is no route in for this faults to be exploited.
Secondly, given the difficulty of implementing Meltdown and Spectre attacks and harvesting useful data, no organisation is going to spend scarce expensive resources on SMEs. There are many bigger fish to try to catch.
Thirdly, to keep on the safe side, ensure you patch your devices as patches become available in the coming weeks and months.