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Jan 5, 2018

Tech Companies Scramble to Patch Spectre and Meltdown

A new security threat targets computer chips in billions of devices

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Spectre and Meltdown may sound like comic book villains, but they’re causing evil headaches for top technology companies.

On Wednesday, security researchers revealed two previously little-known security defects affecting microprocessor chips. Microchips, also referred to as central processing units (CPUs), act as the brains of your electronic devices (your computer, smartphone, or tablet).

It’s possible billions of devices worldwide could be affected, and are therefore vulnerable to hackers.

While tech companies including Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, and Google rushed to issue software patches, the security holes could still leave personal information up for grabs for devices lacking the software updates.

Apple urged its customers to download software only from trusted sources.

Spectre and Meltdown: More details

Spectre and Meltdown take advantage of a CPU process called “speculative execution”, which generally allows chips to process information more quickly by pulling it out of memory before it’s required.

  • Hackers can potentially view this information, which reportedly could include sensitive customer data transmitted online, such as passwords, banking information, or just about any other information.
  • Meltdown is considered easier to exploit, according to reports, and predominantly affects Intel chips.
  • Intel is also one of the largest chip manufacturers in the world. Its stock was down more than 4% as of Friday, January 5, 2018.*
  • Security researchers from Google notified Intel as early as June, 2017 of the security flaws, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Apple feels the bite

The chip flaws have put Apple in the spotlight.

  • Apple issued a candid statement on Friday saying all Mac and iOS devices may be vulnerable, with the exception of the Apple Watch.
  • Apple manufactures its own devices, and relies on Intel chips, which it customizes for its products.
  • There are approximately 700 million Apple smartphones worldwide, according to estimates.

Apple urged its customers to download software only from trusted sources. It said it began releasing software updates that could mitigate Meltdown threats in its most recent operating system versions for desktops, TVs, and mobile devices.

Other things to keep in mind: Software patches that fix the security holes could slow down some computers, some by as much as 30%, according to Bloomberg. Most of the software fixes so far have been aimed at Meltdown, according to Forbes.

*Intel’s stock price closed at $46.83 on Wednesday, January 3, 2018. By mid-day Friday, January 5, 2018 its shares traded at $44.95, according to Google Finance.

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    Jeremy Quittner is the editorial director for Stash.

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