Spectre and Meltdown are two separate computer security problems, but have been lumped together because they were revealed around the same time – and both exploit vulnerabilities in many modern microprocessors.
The website MeltdownAttack, from the Graz University of Technology, explains both Spectre and Meltdown very succinctly – and also links to official security advisories from the industry:
Meltdown breaks the most fundamental isolation between user applications and the operating system. This attack allows a program to access the memory, and thus also the secrets, of other programs and the operating system. If your computer has a vulnerable processor and runs an unpatched operating system, it is not safe to work with sensitive information without the chance of leaking the information. This applies both to personal computers as well as cloud infrastructure. Luckily, there are software patches against Meltdown.
Spectre breaks the isolation between different applications. It allows an attacker to trick error-free programs, which follow best practices, into leaking their secrets. In fact, the safety checks of said best practices actually increase the attack surface and may make applications more susceptible to Spectre. Spectre is harder to exploit than Meltdown, but it is also harder to mitigate. However, it is possible to prevent specific known exploits based on Spectre through software patches.
For now, nearly everyone is dependent on microprocessor makers and operating system vendors to develop, test, and distribute patches to mitigate both flaws. In the future, new microprocessors should be immune to those exploits – but because of the long processor developing new processors, we are unlikely to see computers using such next-generation processors available for several years.
So, expect Spectre and Meltdown to be around for many years to come. Some devices will remain unpatched — because some devices always remain unpatched. Even after new computers become available, it will take years to replace all the old machines.
Just about everything is affected by these flaws. Says the Graz University website:
Which systems are affected by Meltdown? Desktop, Laptop, and Cloud computers may be affected by Meltdown. More technically, every Intel processor which implements out-of-order execution is potentially affected, which is effectively every processor since 1995 (except Intel Itanium and Intel Atom before 2013). We successfully tested Meltdown on Intel processor generations released as early as 2011. Currently, we have only verified Meltdown on Intel processors. At the moment, it is unclear whether AMD processors are also affected by Meltdown. According to ARM, some of their processors are also affected.
Which systems are affected by Spectre? Almost every system is affected by Spectre: Desktops, Laptops, Cloud Servers, as well as Smartphones. More specifically, all modern processors capable of keeping many instructions in flight are potentially vulnerable. In particular, we have verified Spectre on Intel, AMD, and ARM processors.
Ignore Spectre and Meltdown at your peril.
Patch. Sue. Repeat.
Many techies are involved in trying to handle the Spectre and Meltdown issues. So are attorneys. Intel alone has indicated dozens of lawsuits in its annual report filing with the U.S. Securities asnd Exchange Commission:
As of February 15, 2018, 30 customer class action lawsuits and two securities class action lawsuits have been filed. The customer class action plaintiffs, who purport to represent various classes of end users of our products, generally claim to have been harmed by Intel’s actions and/or omissions in connection with the security vulnerabilities and assert a variety of common law and statutory claims seeking monetary damages and equitable relief.
Given that there are many microprocessor makers involved (it’s not only Intel, remember), and the patches for Spectre and Meltdown can dramatically slow down computers, expect a lot more complaints – and a lot more lawsuits.