Have you ever heard of Meltdown? How about Spectre? Do you know what a kernel is? If not, you probably will any day now, as they have to do with one of the most serious computer-security vulnerabilities ever exposed. And since any machine running an Intel processor is affected, just about everyone is at risk.
The interesting thing about this vulnerability is that it has existed for over two decades, discovered only recently by four independent groups of researchers. That’s according to Intel, to whom the discoveries were reported within a four month period in late 2017. And it begs a few frightening questions: Who else has known about it? And for how long?
Both Meltdown and Spectre allow prying eyes to see snippets of your PC, tablet, or smartphone’s sensitive information, so the potential consequences should be clear. And since they are able to exploit silicon chips to get at a device’s “kernel” -- a key component in protecting your computer’s data -- it may be that processors will need to be totally redesigned.
But before that happens, there are a few things business owners and IT departments should be aware of.
What do Meltdown and Spectre do?
Both bugs are extremely serious in that they give cyber criminals a way to navigate your machines. In the case of Meltdown, it allows them to hop through the hardware barrier that’s meant to block direct access from one software application to another. For example, a hacker’s program that logs basic information like credit card numbers could connect to a trusted program like your QuickBooks or SalesForce.
Spectre is thought to take longer to do damage, but it too goes after your company’s sensitive information, and many experts think it is even more devious. Unlike Meltdown, Spectre cannot be eliminated with a software update and appears to be totally resolvable only by replacing hardware -- and replacing an electronic device’s microprocessor is no mean feat for most businesses.
How will your organization be affected?
At the Office - If your servers, desktop PCs, laptops, tablets, and smartphones are running Intel processors, your data is exposed. All those devices have memory, they all store company information in that memory, and it is now possible for bad actors to see what’s in that memory.
Neither of the two exploits actually allow anything to be added to your computer, or changed, like a virus or ransomware bug might. But they both let hackers gather up all the information they would need to install potentially devastating malware like Conficker or WannaCry on your network at a later date.
In the Cloud - If you use Microsoft Office 365 or SalesForce or Amazon Web Services -- particularly in “Public Cloud” configurations where servers are shared by multiple tenants -- other companies, maybe even your direct competitors, could figure out how to peer in on your data.
The good news is major cloud providers have taken the flaws very seriously, immediately deploying patches to contain potential fallout. The bad news is Meltdown and Spectre are deeply rooted in servers, affecting everything from logging into apps to sending and receiving emails to checking online account balances, and it doesn’t appear as if they’ll be going away anytime soon.
What should you do?
As with any serious cyber security issue, vigilance is key. Trying to stay out in front of difficult problems is the surest way to avoid calamity, and it’s especially true for flaws like Meltdown and Spectre that could be the building blocks for years of new variants.
If you aren’t sure you have the resources to make absolutely certain your servers, desktops, laptops, tablets, and smartphones are up to date with the most recent security patches -- not only for Meltdown and Spectre themselves, but for the exploits hackers are sure to design to exploit the patches -- it would be well worth your while to contact an expert.
In other words, if you agree with the famous old adage -- “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes and hackers’ persistent, constantly evolving threats to small-business networks” -- get in touch with Charles IT today.