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As the world of technology continues to expand and evolve, a growing number of devices can now access the internet, providing a level of convenience to people’s daily lives. But when users store their data on smartphones, computers and other devices, it’s vital to keep security in mind. Researchers have recently uncovered security flaws, known as Meltdown and Spectre, in the most modern central processing units, or CPUs.
“Ensuring that all programs and devices have the latest updates could be the difference between losing everything in a cyberattack and staying out of harm’s way.”
Meltdown and Spectre work by accessing and transmitting information in a device’s memory, allowing attackers to obtain confidential information without detection. It’s important for personal and commercial users to learn about the threat, how it impacts them and steps they can take to prevent their data from finding its way into the wrong hands. Addressing these vulnerabilities won’t be easy, but it’s better than allowing cybercriminals to compromise computers and smartphones.
Meltdown and Spectre Overview
If users want to learn how hackers could exploit Meltdown and Spectre to cause harm, understanding the basics of how computers process and store information is a good place to start. Even when people use encryption programs to safeguard their data from unwanted attention, the device on which data are stored must decrypt the data at some point to access and read it. When the processor is making the calculations and reading the commands, security protocols work to protect the decrypted data from being read by unauthorized applications.
Since manufacturers have designed computers and smartphones to process data as quickly as possible, a system’s kernel will load needed applications in the cache for easy access by the processor. At this stage, the data is exposed to the bugs and can give private information to other programs. Those applications can then send the information to attackers.
Meltdown is a vulnerability that targets Intel CPUs to access secure data, but it also affects some AMD processors. A criminal can use software that exploits the Meltdown vulnerability to force a processor to reveal information that would have otherwise been isolated from the rest of the operating system. With the right approach, Meltdown can even compromise data from a virtual machine, creating a huge risk of which people need to be aware. Once a program targets the CPU and gains access to kernel-level data, it can view information from almost any application that a user runs on the machine.
Spectre targets both AMD and Intel CPUs to give attackers access to secure data so that they can breech networks, steal identities and engage in other malicious behavior. When criminals use Spectre to break the isolation that prevents applications from sharing data, it exploits a flaw in speculative processing. Using Spectre takes a lot more time and knowledge from those who wish to take advantage of the weakness, but Spectre is harder to avoid than Meltdown.
The History of Meltdown and Spectre
Although security experts have just discovered these flaws, they have been present for almost two decades. Researchers don’t know if attackers have used these exploits in the wild with any level of success because the exploits are difficult to track. Either way, the risk is real and can cause a lot of damage if users fail to protect themselves from the threat. So far, nobody has documented vulnerabilities similar to Meltdown or Spectre, making them unique problems that will take a lot more work to solve.
What Meltdown and Spectre Mean for Users
Companies and personal users need to take a close look at Meltdown and Spectre so that they can have a chance to protect themselves and secure their data. Those who know how the exploits work and the amount of harm they can cause will have a decent shot at avoiding the threat and keeping their data away from prying eyes.
The Type of Data Hackers Can Target
When it comes to Meltdown and Spectre, users are often curious about the type of data a hacker could access after exploiting the vulnerability. The type of information a criminal will want to expose depends on the criminal’s motivation and goals. Although every application is at risk for leaking information, most hackers will look for bank account information, credit card numbers and personal data.
A hacker with the right tools could also capture email and social media log-in information, and the hacker could then take over a person’s online identity. The fallout of such an attack could result in damage from which recovery won’t be easy.
The Threat to Businesses
As with other vulnerabilities, attackers can use these exploits to target businesses. Hackers who gain access to a company’s private data can view the credit card information of its customers. When businesses fail to protect their customers’ data, their reputation will take a hit, and the problem will cause some of them to close their doors for good.
Attackers can also use Meltdown and Spectre to access a business’ bank account to drain the funds. As far as the health care industry is concerned, a data leak creates liability issues that they won’t be able to ignore. Losing the personal information of patients can result in lawsuits and other problems that could impact many people.
How Businesses and Individuals Can Protect Themselves
Although these exploits can leak information and cause a lot of harm to the people they impact, users can take many steps to secure their devices and data. Following good security habits will reduce a user’s odds of being targeted by hackers, offering confidence and peace of mind.
Home users can implement cybersecurity habits and teach their families to do the same. Businesses will need to learn how to stay safe online and use the information to set security policies for each user. For more detailed steps and best practices, check out our previous blog for 10 tips on how to keep yourself and your customers cyber safe here. Below are ways you can protect your devices from the Meltdown and Spectre bugs.
1. Install Patches and Run Updates
Software and operating system manufacturers care about their reputation and want to protect each customer from exploits and other harmful programs. When they detect a vulnerability in something they have released to the public, they will publish patches and updates to address the problem. Ensuring that all programs and devices have the latest updates could be the difference between losing everything in a cyberattack and staying out of harm’s way.
2. Use a proven anti-virus program
It will catch and detect malware before it has the chance to do significant damage. Businesses should not allow employees to have administrator accounts on the network unless the users are trained in security protocol.
3. Beware of phishing scams
Users should also avoid clicking on suspicious links or opening e-mail files from unknown senders or false e-mail addresses. As a follow up security measure…
4. Establish a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) policy
Preventing users from bringing their own devices to work can reduce the odds of network attacks. When users receive email attachments from trusted senders, they should always call or text the sender to confirm the message is real. Attackers will often use fake email addresses to send malicious code to targeted machines, but communicating with co-workers will reduce the risk.
Hackers targeting the Meltdown and Spectre vulnerabilities can breach standard security measures and retrieve highly sensitive data about businesses and individuals. Even though these exploits can cause lasting damage to anyone, the right mindset and initiative to understand cyber security threats – like Meltdown and Spectre – as well as implementing or updating security solutions, can reduce the odds of an attack and keep personal information away from those who have malicious intentions.