Major slowdowns headed for almost all computers

Major patches are coming, for most operating systems and devices running modern (made in the last 10 years or so) processors. Changes to Windows, Linux, macOS, and most other systems will modify the way memory is used, ameliorating critical CPU security flaws, and slowing them down significantly in the process.

There’s been a lot of secrecy around this issue, with details of the flaws — discovered several months ago — only now coming to light as O/S vendors scramble to prepare patches. The flaws (commonly referred to as Spectre and Meltdown) involve potential leaking of information, as described in a recent post on The Register:

At best, the vulnerability could be leveraged by malware and hackers to more easily exploit other security bugs.

At worst, the hole could be abused by programs and logged-in users to read the contents of the kernel’s memory. Suffice to say, this is not great. The kernel’s memory space is hidden from user processes and programs because it may contain all sorts of secrets, such as passwords, login keys, files cached from disk, and so on.

Much of this is still speculation, but the reality may be even worse, so hang onto your socks, since this is going to get ugly. It’s easy to imagine class action lawsuits arising out of the mess.

Those of you running light operating systems on older hardware may have the last laugh: while many of the world’s computers will soon be noticeably — and unavoidably — slower, yours will keep chugging along unaffected… at least until they’re used to access any of the millions of computers that power web sites and services. Major providers may have no choice but to install the updates, significantly reducing the processing power of their systems.

For computers running Windows 10, system updates are literally unavoidable, and the slowdown inevitable. The rest of us will need to decide whether to risk leaving the vulnerabilities exposed, or patch them and deal with the resulting performance hit. Exploiting the vulnerabilities is not straightforward, and it should be possible to stay safe by avoiding risky behaviour, such as indiscriminately running unknown software, visiting dubious web sites, and opening links in email. However, the full extent of the risks involved is not yet known.

Related articles

The Verge: Intel’s processors have a security bug and the fix could slow down PCs
The Verge: Microsoft issues emergency Windows update for processor security bugs
The Verge: Intel says processor bug isn’t unique to its chips and performance issues are ‘workload-dependent’
The Verge: Processor flaw exposes 20 years of devices to new attack
The Verge: How to protect your PC against the major ‘Meltdown’ CPU security flaw
Google Security Blog: Today’s CPU vulnerability: what you need to know
Bruce Schneier: Spectre and Meltdown Attacks
SANS InfoSec: Spectre and Meltdown: What You Need to Know Right Now
Techdirt: A Major Security Vulnerability Has Plagued ‘Nearly All’ Intel CPUs For Years

Update 2018Jan04: Corrected title and content to show that the problem affects all modern processors, not just those made by Intel, and that there are multiple vulnerabilities. Also added more related articles.

About jrivett

Jeff Rivett has worked with and written about computers since the early 1980s. His first computer was an Apple II+, built by his father and heavily customized. Jeff's writing appeared in Computist Magazine in the 1980s, and he created and sold a game utility (Ultimaker 2, reviewed in the December 1983 Washington Apple Pi Journal) to international markets during the same period. Proceeds from writing, software sales, and contract programming gigs paid his way through university, earning him a Bachelor of Science (Computer Science) degree at UWO. Jeff went on to work as a programmer, sysadmin, and manager in various industries. There's more on the About page, and on the Jeff Rivett Consulting site.

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