A fundamental design flaw in Intel microprocessors that allows sensitive data, such as passwords and crypto-keys, to be stolen from memory is real – and its details have been revealed.
'Meltdown' and 'Spectre' are the names of two exploits that leverage critical vulnerabilities in all modern Intel® processors used in Windows, Linux and Apple Mac devices. These exploits allow programs to steal data which is currently processed on the computer.
John Leyden and Chris Williams' article for The Register® explains: "Whenever a running program needs to do anything useful – such as write to a file or open a network connection – it has to temporarily hand control of the processor to the kernel to carry out the job. To make the transition from user mode to kernel mode and back to user mode as fast and efficient as possible, the kernel is present in all processes' virtual memory address spaces, although it is invisible to these programs. When the kernel is needed, the program makes a system call, the processor switches to kernel mode and enters the kernel. When it is done, the CPU is told to switch back to user mode, and re-enter the process. While in user mode, the kernel's code and data remains out of sight but present in the process's page tables".
Advice from security experts is to; sit tight, install OS and firmware security updates as soon as you can, don't run untrusted code and consider turning on site isolation in your browser to thwart malicious webpages trying to leverage these design flaws to steal session cookies from the browser process.
Unfortunately, updates to both Linux and Windows will incur a performance hit on Intel products. Other operating systems, such as Apple's 64-bit macOS, will still need to be updated – the flaw is in the Intel x86-64 hardware, and it appears a microcode update can't address it.
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