If you store any personal information on a computer, smartphone or web service, your data is at risk from two major computer security exploits: Meltdown and Spectre. What makes Meltdown and Spectre especially threatening is that they affect your computer at the hardware level – specifically the processors inside your device. These flaws exist not because of a bug in computer software designs, but as a result of a feature in computer hardware that’s been around since 1995.
Processors are the chips inside of computers that allow them to perform billions of calculations per second and are generally referred to as a computer’s brain. Consumers have developed the expectation of computers performing at a faster rate each year. To satisfy this demand, chip developers added a function to processors called speculative execution.
Speculative execution allows the computer to guess what the user might do next and perform necessary calculations for the possible outcomes, staying one step ahead of them. What happens to the predetermined calculations that may not be applicable to your current task at hand? The unused data gets trashed. The problem with speculative execution is that the discarded data is not protected. Anyone who gains access to your trash will then have a door into your daily tasks.
Meltdown and Spectre exploit this feature by using malicious coding to trick your computer into speculatively loading information that it wouldn’t normally have access to. You or your anti-virus may not be aware of someone going through your data, since Meltdown and Spectre are exploiting a normal function of your computer’s processor.
Meltdown and Spectre may differ in technicalities, but the results both lead to compromised data. Patches for this exploit are available, but they come at a cost as they may affect the overall performance of your device in terms of speed. The patches can protect against some Meltdown and Spectre attacks, but it requires new hardware to be designed and implemented to completely fix the problem. This is enough reason for concern, because computers may still be vulnerable for decades while technology is being upgraded to suit current needs.
It’s clear that there is no absolute solution in place for this problem. Do not let this deter you from installing patches onto your device though as staying on top of current trends and threats while losing some performance may well be in the best interests of your overall online security.