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Meltdown and Spectre: How They Can Affect Your Processor?

By September 13, 2019 No Comments
Meltdown-and-Spectre

To describe in simple words, Meltdown and Spectre are mere vulnerabilities that keep your password and sensitive data in danger. Meltdown and Spectre are the fundamental flaws in modern processors. 

It is estimated that processors which have been manufactured for the past 20 years had this flaw. The security researchers discovered this flaw in late 2017 and publicized in early 2018 for public awareness. 

Though there is no rampant exploitation of this flaw until now, researchers claim that misusing this flaw will result in deadly outcomes. The worst thing about it is that it will be very difficult to detect.

Security Experts are considering these flaws to be catastrophic. Exploiting these vulnerabilities allow attackers to get access to all the previously stored password-protected data. These hardware flaws give access to the hacker, leaving the data in a vulnerable state.

Typically, programs are not given the accessibility to check the data which is not related to its function. But one can exploit the Meltdown and Spectre to retrieve the data of other programs. These data could be passwords or data from your browser. Other data which can be hacked are emails, messages, photos and media, important documents, etc.

To put it in a simple sentence, one can keep track of your every action and things you do in your phone or computer — meltdown and Spectreoperate on smartphones, PCs, and even on cloud-oriented platforms. Since the cloud has a lot of data, it can be hacked.

The Meltdown and Spectre is a trio of variations on the vulnerabilities in every other processor of the computer or other devices. They mainly exist in the processors which were manufactured for the last twenty years. 

Variations of Vulnerability

There is a total of 3 variations of vulnerability:

  • 2 variations of vulnerability are clubbed under Spectre
  • The 3rd variation of vulnerability is clubbed under meltdown. 

These variants of the underlying vulnerability maliciously give access to any stealer. The hacker uses techniques like caching and speculative execution to unleash the vulnerability.

But before we move further let’s elaborately discuss what meltdown and Spectre is. 

Meltdown:

The name is given as Meltdown because it ‘melts’ the security boundaries enforced by the hardware. Three teams in the United States independently reported meltdown.

Meltdown attacks and breaks through the security barrier created by the applications. This breakdown of security would give a program the access of the files which are not related to the program’s function. 

Computer processors with such vulnerability and unpatched operating systems are not safe when it comes to storing or working on important data. 

Attackers can use Meltdown to exploit and view data owned by other users. It can also access information stored in virtual servers which share the same hardware. Hacking data from virtual servers can be a disaster for vendors of the cloud server. Meltdown doesn’t require skilled hijackers but only works on specific kinds of Intel chip processor.To overcome such a crisis, there is software which can fight back meltdown.

Spectre

The term ‘Spectre’ is derived from speculative execution. Spectre refers to something widely feared as a dangerous thing. The term is also a derivation from its literal meaning because Spectre haunts the present generation of technology. Though there are software patches which are still being developed, they are not effective enough to bust Spectre effectively.

Spectre clubs two variants on vulnerability, each of which is given its individual CVE number. Spectre breaks through the security gap and permits attackers to trick users with error-free programs. These lead to hacking of the information.

These safety checks increase the risk of getting exploited by Spectre. It is difficult to track meltdown, but tracking Spectre is more of a challenging task.

Spectre requires detailed knowledge of the targeted program’s inner working and unlike meltdown, it can be exploited with using any processor.

For instance, the user can be tricked by a website to reveal the password and other important information by using Javascript. These Spectre exploitations can be prevented by using a software patch. 

Beyond the potentially predicted attacks, the flaw lies within the hardware platform on which our software works is itself dangerous. Even a code or a program that is meant to keep your computer safe is running on hardware which itself is vulnerable to exploitation.

Meltdown and Spectre patches

These vulnerabilities of meltdown and Spectre can be prevented to some extent through software patches. As the flaws and vulnerability prevail in hardware, busting the main flaw is not possible. However, vendors nowadays are developing programs or software patches which protect the system from getting exploited by such flaws. In 2017, KAISER patch was developed to improve the security of Linux. This helped to prevent meltdown attacks. 

All the cloud servers are using these patches to stay away from the exploitation of meltdown and Spectre. These protective patches are also used by Google, Apple, Intel and Microsoft. 

JavaScript browsers are the major vectors for Spectre attacks, so it is highly suggested to update your browser from time to time. Old operating systems like Windows XP cannot be patched. Also, many old version androids do not provide patching options. So it is advisable to buy mobile handsets and computer devices carefully after considering the above-listed facts.

Though it is possible in theory, your antivirus can detect this flaw as it can hardly distinguish any malware of meltdown and Spectre. 

These software patches generally reduce the vulnerabilities by creating a protective cover and modifying software codes. The only disadvantage working around these patches is the slow performance of your system. Though these features improve your system and bust security issue but slow system performance is the side effect. 

Conclusion

Since now we have a clear understanding that antiviruses are not enough to keep our data safe in our systems, we need to opt for the software patches which will protect it to some extent. Recently, Intel has announced that their latest processors are equipped with firmware and added hardware to mitigate the vulnerabilities of Meltdown and Spectre.

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