The first week of 2018 has seen one of the biggest revelations in the history of cybersecurity and perhaps even the history of personal computers. Two fundamental flaws in modern processor chips potentially allow a hacker to access data contained in the computer’s memory such as passwords, photos, documents, and more. The bugs are known as meltdown and Spectre. The vulnerability was created as a result of a modification to modern chips used by manufacturers to increase the speed capability of computers. As a result, some experts believe that fixing the problem could impact the performance of the affected computers.

A universal exploitable weakness

Almost all modern devices that contain a central processing unit (CPU) chip are affected by Meltdown and Spectre. That includes laptops, desktops, smartphones, and tablets. Chip manufacturers AMD, Intel, and ARM make the chips in question.

It’s not easy for a hacker to exploit these vulnerabilities, and it does require existing malware to work, meaning only a computer already infected with malware can be attacked by Meltdown or Spectre. Yet even more concerning than the implications for personal cybersecurity is the fact that many cloud services could also have been affected. Business Insider reports that under certain conditions, users of large cloud-based services like Google Drive could even steal data from each other using these exploits.

Not quite armageddon

As for the good news, Intel and Google both claim to never have witnessed an actual example of Meltdown or Spectre being used to Compromise a computer. And companies such as Apple and Amazon have already begun working on ways to repair the weakness. Some reports claim that the fixes will slow performance by nearly a third.

Intel disputes these claims by saying that any impact upon performance will be determined by the way in which a computer is used.

Meltdown appears to mostly affect processors made by Intel. Spectre, however, which is said to be far more dangerous, has successfully been used by Google to compromise computers using Intel, AMD, and ARM chips.

Spectre is such a severe vulnerability that it will take a new generation of processors to completely do away with. In fact, it was named as such for the fact that it will haunt us for some time.

In short, make sure to download any and all updates for your operating system that are available. That’s about all you can do for now to protect yourself from these unprecedented vulnerabilities. Here's a funny tweet about Meltdown and Spectre that helps explain what they are: