MELTDOWN AND SPECTRE: YOUR INFORMATION ISN’T AS SAFE AS IT SEEMS

What if I told you that private hackers could gain access to all your personal information and data just by running a single program on your laptop, phone, or tablet? Pictures, credit cards, passwords, insurance information, and countless other sensitive pieces of data can be accessed through your device and you would never know. Are you worried? Do you feel the sudden urge to immediately throw your phone away and go off the grid? Well as of right now you can hold on to your precious iPhone and you can continue to browse Facebook on your PC. However the poor design of the central processing unit in computer chip has opened the floodgates to this real life scenario. Meltdown and Spectre are two computer programs that take advantage of a flaw in your devices CPU, you know the brains of your computer, and allows criminals to access any file by simply running a program.

So what is this flaw?

In the 1960’s when computers chip production was just getting under way companies were experimenting with ways to increase processing speeds. As systems advanced chip makers were competing to see who could create the fastest processor. A system called Speculative Execution was created as a way for your computer to store reoccurring memories on your devices such as passwords and credit card information. A simplified example will come later so bear with me. This method in essence allows your processor to identify an action that you have do regularly, say typing in your password, and will execute all subsequent steps needed in the background. To make this possible chip makers installed small “cache” memory chips in the CPU allowing your devices to store commonly used data.

Ok, real world example time. So imagine that you are a customer at a local coffee shop and you go every morning and order the same double Frappuccino with extra cream and caramel swirl. Eventually the barista starts to notice that you come in everyday at the same time ordering the same drink and begins to make it before you even arrive. This leads to a greater efficiency between the shop and the customer speeding up service for everyone. However, say one day you decide that you will not be purchasing your usual oversized sugary drink and pick a different item off the menu. The barista, who already made your usual drink, must now start from scratch and throw the pre-made drink away. Essentially this is what is happening during Speculative Execution, although insteadof the data (double Frappuccino with extra cream and caramel swirl) being thrown into the trash it is stored in an unsecure part of the cache memory. This is where Meltdown and Spectre can gain access.

Since in the 1960’s data sharing and multiple device connectivity were not yet invented. Chip makers didn’t bother to protect this cache memory leaving it vulnerable to access with some coding tricks incased in Meltdown and Spectre. To become slightly more technical, Meltdown and Spectre load your device up with copious amounts of random data then use a code containing potential letters, symbols, and numbers of your password. Meltdown and Spectre then attempt to retrieve this random data back containing said code to see how quickly the data is being retrieved. If the CPU’s “clock speed” is extremely quick then the hacker knows that it came from the cache memory in the CPU and is therefore the first digit in your passcode. Once this function is completed millions of times the program eventually breaks down all parts of your password of other sensitive data and can gain access to your device and everything within it, scary right!?

For all those code lovers out there here is an example of a line of code used to find out if your password beings with the letter A: if ( readMemor(182379) ===”A”){readPixel(1)} (Courtesy of Medium.com)

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You might now be asking “so are we all screwed?”

The answer for now is no not inherently, however almost all of the devices that we use today  are vulnerable to these two programs. The problem isn’t within the code and systems of our devices but rather in the actual physical design of the CPU chips installed in our phones, laptops, and tablets. It is currently known that all Intel processors after 1995 are vulnerable to attacks via there CPU units along with a handful of ARM processors as well. The problem is that these two companies make up a large share of the CPU market and their chips are in most popular devices of the day such as all Apple and Microsoft products. To scare you even more it has also been tested and proven that Meltdown and Spectre can be accessed through a large majority of Cloud computing systems most notably Xen PV and Docker.

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As a consumer there is little that can be done on your end to help prevent these attacks. These flaws in CPUs were brought to the attention of large corporations months ago to which updates and potential patches were released for download. It is crucial for any device owner to constantly be updating their systems to help prevent these problems from happening to you. Although, updates and patches can only go so far due to the fact that the actual error causing this flaw is the physical chip itself. The likelihood of these systems being used to hack most people is extremely small and you should not be worried about your sensitive data just yet. It is always important to be aware that such programs exist and that is why it is so crucial to stay on top of your devices and apps latest system updates and downloads.

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Here is a link to check if your system is up-to-date and can protect itself against Spectre.

https://www.grc.com/inspectre.htm

6 comments

  1. roarkword · ·

    Given that the likelihood that these systems will infect most people is small; is there any reason that companies will count on consumers not caring and let the problem slide? I’m mainly concerned about a potential escalation of hacks happening due to corporations only finding out about it now and the inherent inertia that companies have in affecting sweeping changes to their devices. All of that aside, I can definitely say that I am concerned given that it is a physical device problem which makes fixing the problem a time consuming and expensive fix. I will definitely keep my eye on this issue now that I’m aware. Please let us know on your future blog posts if anything else develops!

  2. kikinitwithraf · ·

    I think this post brings up a great point, and not just with computer chips. As consumer appetites continue grow, so will the trade-off between gaining access to new technologies vs. the amount of personal information someone has to give up. That said, stealing information is happening anywhere and everywhere. With a simple “scanning” software, anyone that logs onto Facebook, their online banking, and even email could be hacked by someone sitting 15ft away (i.e. Boston College library) without even knowing it.

    As far as fixing the problem, I don’t think this is an issue that can be fully resolved. I think its more an issue of how much tolerance consumers have to towards their information becoming public.

  3. jamessenwei · ·

    Hey Michael, I thought you explained this very well. thanks to you I finally know what people are talking about when they say Spectre and Meltdown, definitely crazy to think about. This post makes me wonder. Are the chip manufacturers coming up with performance enhancement techniques that are going to be outed as huge security holes? Maybe 30 years down the line we discover something that renders everything we use unusable. I think the cybersecurity industry will go through phases of high growth.

    To answer your question though, I don’t feel to worried about hackers. It’s simply something that I don’t think about day to day and I suspect that is the case for many of my peers.

  4. Jobabes121 · ·

    Great post! I have always heard that hacking is a relatively “easy process,” but knowing the specific programs that enable hacking helps a lot to visualize and understand. My question would be the following: How easy is it for one to gain access to those programs? Are they primarily for the purpose of hacking, or does a particular industry use it for their service? I think it is not the matter of ease in using the program; rather; the access to the programs would be so. If this becomes a serious concern ad threatens the entire computer users (which is pretty much everyone by now), I believe more security programs that hinder the access ingrained in the computers would be a better way of approaching the problem. I think developing a whole new set of CPU would be a bit of a stretch, given that the integration all over time world would take an absurd amount of time. But it is certainly good to be aware, and which part of the computer allows such activities to prevail.

  5. I was surprised by how well you know about Meltdown and Spectre, and the process these programs cause troubles in CPU. Living in the world where everything is digital and online, we all know that our private information are vulnerable to hacking. As users, best solutions to minimize damages from hacking is to be aware of possible attacks and prevent it through actions. That includes, as you mentioned in the end, updating software and devices up to date. I also have seen many people covering laptop’s webcam with as they were concerned about webcam privacy.

  6. markdimeglio · ·

    As someone who codes and is generally interested in computer science, I really liked this post a lot. Furthermore, I really liked your explanation of how one can hack into this insecure memory. I wonder if the software providers can just add a patch where one can turn off the functions that cause this keychain information to be exposed.

    Going off @roarkword‘s comment, I can definitely see HP and other major hardware producers letting these things slide. Viruses have always been a things and the likelihood that one could get exposed is small. On the other hand, there have been some high profile data breaches recently. This could potentially cause the hardware producers to act.

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