Meltdown and Spectre: How chip hacks work

Collectively, Meltdown and Spectre affect billions of systems around the world – from desktop PCs to smartphones.

Apple have confirmed all their devices including iPhones are subject to this vulnerability.

So why are so many different devices vulnerable – and what is being done to fix things?

What part of my computer is at risk?

When it is working, a computer shuffles around huge amounts of data as it responds to clicks, commands and key presses.

The core part of a computer’s operating system, the kernel, handles this data co-ordination job.

The kernel moves data between different sorts of memory on the chip and elsewhere in the computer.

Computers are engaged in a constant battle to make sure the data you want is in the fastest memory possible at the time you need it.

When data is in the processor’s own memory – the cache – it is managed by the processor but it is at this point that the newly revealed vulnerabilities come into effect.

Spectre essentially gets programs to perform unnecessary operations – this leaks data that should stay confidential.

Meltdown also grabs information – but it simply snoops on memory used by the kernel in a way that would not normally be possible.

Businessman looking frustrated while using a laptop

Some of the affected chips are used in laptops, tablets and smartphones.

Spectre exploits something called “speculative execution”, which prepares the results of a set of instructions to a chip before they may be needed.

Those results are placed in one of the fastest bits of memory – on the computer’s processor chip.

Unfortunately, security researchers have discovered that it is possible to manipulate this forward-looking system to get the processor to perform operations on memory that it wouldn’t normally do.

Bit by bit, this technique could be used to reveal sensitive or important data.


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