Meltdown and Spectre Analysis and Current Status

There seems to be a lot of complacent or feel-good news that Meltdown and Spectre will solve themselves or that no worry or care should be taken from users but this couldn’t be further from the truth.  In reality while CPU makers say “there are no known cases of exploits” doesn’t do much to allay fears of those in the know.  This is because Spectre and Meltdown will not leave any trace or evidence that you’ve been hacked.  Although it can be argued that there may be some signs of unauthorized access if that was how access was gained.

However, the nature of Spectre and Meltdown allow for normal authorized users, programs and even scripts on websites to exploit you.  This is why it is so scary as there’s really no way to be certain you haven’t been breached.

It’s an issue for everyone because these exploits could impact anything from your bank, transportation/transit, airplanes, nuclear power plants, and basically anything else that relies on computing security since Meltdown and Spectre are a complete breakdown of those barriers.  I won’t go into more of the basic details but I did make a quick “take on the issue here“.

The good news

There were patches quickly released for a lot of Linux, Windows and Mac devices.  However this doesn’t mean that the users installed the patches or that all users have the ability or access to do so.  Take for example physically remote computers, devices and perhaps some that are running headless that may not be easily accessible or that for some reason have patches disabled (this is more common than you’d think in production or mission critical environments).

Then what about old and unsupported versions of operating systems or that old security system, phone, or TV box, or even ATM whose manufacturer may not be around anymore or is just simply not offering support?

It’s the same issue with many common worms and viruses, patches, and fixes may be issued but millions or more are often still affected long after for various reasons.

The bad news

Even if we assume that Google discovered these flaws first, and if we assume they weren’t mandated to be put there via ARM, AMD and Intel what about insiders who know about this back in June or even earlier on?   From that point a number of individuals and groups could have compromised or damaged sensitive data and computer systems.  There’s still time since a lot of devices and people will not be patched yet.

And to make things worse, the only true way to solve this issue is with a CPU microcode update, which is not simple to deploy especially on embedded devices and any mistake can lead to a bricked device.

These OS patches are just that “patch work”, a hack or work around to mitigate the issue.

Then there’s the question of “we know there are 3 variants or vectors of attack”.  What if there are others that are not yet discovered?  You can be well equipped and funded organizations/hacking groups are working on this as we speak and they certainly won’t be disclosing it.  Until all devices have microcode updates there’s no way to certain we are safe from unknown vectors related to Spector and Meltdown.

What can you do?

Simply look out for the latest updates for your devices/phones/computers and install the update but don’t falsely assume a new update means you are protected unless you’ve read so that “this update fixes the Spectre and Meltdown” issue.

My Take On Meltdown and Spectre Computer Security Flaws

Spectre and Meltdown allow a non-privileged user (non-root/non-Admin)  to access memory they aren’t supposed to essentially dissolving the majority of computing security and privacy barriers.  This could be a guest user collecting sensitive information/passwords for an entire database, group of users, network etc..

If you are using any computing device whether it be an ARM based device, Intel CPU (although Intel is the worst offender at this point), AMD CPU this issue affects you and billions of other devices and users around the world.  Whether you are on Linux, Unix, Windows, Mac this applies to you.  It is really an unmitigated scandal and disaster for both privacy, security and even safety with long lasting and wide ranging ramifications that will continue to playout for years.

I’ve made a comment in the past about security, IOT and how there are many devices that are now unsupported or can’t be updated leading to huge security issues.  We are now unfortunately there and have been since 1995.

This issue was first reported by Google Project Zero and they are known as the Meltdown and Spectre Vulnerabilities that affect all microprocessors made since 1995 (the modern computing era).

To make it worse there are 3 known “variants” or attack vectors known (I suggest there may be more that are undisclosed or not yet known to the public).  With variants 1,2 being very similar (known as Spectre) and variant 3 known as Meltdown.

  • Variant 1: bounds check bypass (CVE-2017-5753)
  • Variant 2: branch target injection (CVE-2017-5715)
  • Variant 3: rogue data cache load (CVE-2017-5754)

The attack is possible due to “speculative execution” where CPUs (computer chips) essentially try to predict future work needed and will actually do sometimes unneeded work as the performance hit for doing this is less than waiting to execute the instructions later.   This means the computer sometimes performs work that isn’t needed and not used to increase performance, where things have gotten bad is through this feature, it’s possible for a normal user/process to gain unrestricted access to memory that you shouldn’t have access to.

What is Spectre?

The primary variants (1,2) that make up Spectre  rely on the user exploiting the speculative feature of the CPU to write to memory under their control.  This allows a normal user to read basically all memory processes allowing keys, passwords and confidential data to be intercepted.  AMD Claims that Variant #2 does not impact them as well.

What is Meltdown?

Meltdown is the third and more serious and nasty variant that still relies on the speculative execution exploit/flaw but actually allows the attacker to read arbitrary memory (so basically anywhere at will).  The key feature of Meltdown is that it is the easiest attack to perform and it has been demonstrated on the Intel platform already.

The only good news is that apparently this Meltdown attack only affects Intel and not AMD.

Redhat has also done an excellent writeup about the issue here:

How To Protect Yourself

First and foremost you should update your devices as soon as patches become available.  In Linux enabling KPTI can protect you.   However for some major distributions of Linux users are still waiting for a patch.

If you are vulnerable and performing critical operations it’s time to make tough choices including possibly turning off your machines or denying all non-admin users access to a server/services if possible.

Ensuring rotation of keys and passwords can also mitigate your risks even if passwords have been compromised.

It comes down to good security practices all around such as segregating services to different physical machines, restricting physical and virtual user access.

If possible remove all non-essential or untrusted applications from your device/computer/server.

Dedicated Servers Will Become More Popular

There has been a huge trend to put everything into the Cloud, one that I have reservations with despite owning companies that offer our own private Cloud.

Fortunately we haven’t been impacted by Spectre and Meltdown and are not vulnerable but it does raise questions from our clients that we’ve mentioned before.

I’ve always advocated for physical segregation, which means that if possible you should have your own physical dedicated server that is encrypted and running a minimum set of services with as a few users as possible.  By doing this you significantly reduce your risk in a scenario like this by putting your company database, e-mail, VPN, websites, file server on physically different servers.

Serious Questions and Concerns Raised

I would raise the question that is it really possible that such a wide-ranging exploit was completely unknown for this long until a team from Google discovered it?  Considering the budgets of major intelligence agencies around the world who are constantly looking to find exploits of their own it is conceivable that this vulnerability may have been exploited for far longer than it was publicly known by specific groups.

Another one is Intel’s response to it by apparently being accused of singling out AMD when as of now, Intel is far more vulnerable.

Since these chip makers are all US based is it possible they were mandated by law to introduce speculative execution in such a similar way that this vulnerability would be possible?  Considering recent revelations I don’t think it would be inconceivable.

Are there more than 3 variants and if we assume that no one else really knew about Variants 1-3 is it not possible that a well-armed team could find new ways to exploit them?

Long-term Value for Intel, AMD and ARM

At the time of writing Intel’s stock was down about 3% but this could get worse for either of these companies if one’s vulnerabilities keep increasing and/or one of them is hit with a larger exploit.


It’s hard to give an honest conclusion as we’re just getting started and this is all we know about the Variants 1,2 (Spectre) and Meltdown.  So far it looks like we were lucky to choose AMD.  The key issue that will come out of this is how many devices and users will remain vulnerable by being unable to patch or if they have a device that cannot be easily patched or there is no longer any support from the vendor?  This would increase the amount of zombies and data security breaches several fold.

This is also a good time and a wakeup call for all companies to do a security audit and if they don’t have dedicated security staff, to bring in some good IT and security auditors to assess and mitigate these risks before they become costly losses.

Green Low-Power Alternative Computing Intel NUC Boxes

The key features of low power NUC boxes are that they are small,lightweight,portable,efficient and the low power means less heat and energy savings which all mean “Green Efficient Computing for the Environment”.  In addition consider that you could run these units without power on a UPS for a much longer period of time than most laptops or Desktop computers.  In an emergency or any issue with lack of power, these units will be first and foremost.

As a bit of continuation of my Green Computing talk these NUC boxes take it to the next level from Intel using low power laptop DDR3L SODIMM memory.  I recently bought a barebone Intel NUC J3455 Box for my wife and was impressed at the power usage (literally 10W to the wall at 110V!) and it is still a Quad-Core albeit with slightly lower CPU frequency of just 1.5Ghz but it works great for most functions.  I was able to upgrade it easily to 8GB of RAM (2x4GB), it has an SD card slot built-in, HDMI, VGA and 4 USB 3.0 ports and a 2.5″ SATA 3.0 port that I plugged a 256GB SSD into and installed Ubuntu/Linux Mint on.  It works quite well but there appear to be a few bugs and fidgeting required, for example the NIC cable came loose and it wouldn’t work until I replugged and rebooted it (actually the BIOS stopped showing the NIC at all so somehow it got disabled on its own and there was no option to rThe cheaper one on the left is bare-ones and e-enable or disable it in the BIOS).  You also have to disable the C-Step functions or the CPU doesn’t work properly.  In Linux it looks like there is a bug in the Intel Graphics driver for this model that sometimes causes the graphics/mdm to be restarted. Aside from the tinkering it is well worth the cost saving and works well and reliably.

One thing I will say I am a little surprised at is that the unit does get fairly hot if you are using it heavily and there is no fan in the Intel NUC which means things do get a bit hot (but nothing compared to a laptop).  It comes down to HDD, RAM and CPU being cramped into an incredibly small package.

The Vorke V1 J3160 is basically the same thing as above but does not have the 2 RAM slots (only a single).  However it is priced well and only uses 6W instead of 10W, quite the power savings!  I have purchased the unit below but have not had a chance to test it but I am hoping for the same or better results as the Intel J3455 unit above.  I love how this one comes with 4GB RAM and 64GB SSD out of the box and includes Windows so it’s ready to go out of the box (many like me will just be installing Linux though).  It can serve as an excellent backup box (eg. plug it in somewhere else and hook up a bunch of large USB 3.0 HDDs and keep another copy of your data). Or in my case it could just be an excellent “stand-by” computer with a mirror of your current config “just in case” your main unit goes down you could get going instantly with the backup one.  One other feature I am hoping for in this unit is to see the BIOS is a little more stable and less buggy than Intel’s.  Finally I am hopeful the unit will run cooler due to the 6W CPU and built-in case fan which I think Intel may want to consider too.   Time will tell but I am looking forward to getting a chance to open and test the Vorke V1 and hope they will keep producing similar units.