Hacking fears: Security flaws put virtually all phones, computers at risk

by Reuters /  / Updated 
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Man holding a micro computer chip from desktop computer.KaiDunn / iStockphoto/Getty Images file

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Security researchers on Wednesday disclosed a set of security flaws that they said could let hackers steal sensitive information from nearly every modern computing device containing chips from Intel Corp, Advanced Micro Devices Inc and ARM Holdings.

One of the bugs is specific to Intel but another affects laptops, desktop computers, smartphones, tablets and internet servers alike. Intel and ARM insisted that the issue was not a design flaw, but it will require users to download a patch and update their operating system to fix.

“Phones, PCs, everything are going to have some impact, but it’ll vary from product to product,” Intel CEO Brian Krzanich said in an interview with CNBC Wednesday afternoon.

Researchers with Alphabet Inc's Google Project Zero, in conjunction with academic and industry researchers from several countries, discovered two flaws.

The first, called Meltdown, affects Intel chips and lets hackers bypass the hardware barrier between applications run by users and the computer's memory, potentially letting hackers read a computer's memory and steal passwords. The second, called Spectre, affects chips from Intel, AMD and ARM and lets hackers potentially trick otherwise error-free applications into giving up secret information.

The researchers said Apple Inc and Microsoft Corp had patches ready for users for desktop computers affected by Meltdown. Microsoft declined to comment and Apple did not immediately return requests for comment.

Daniel Gruss, one of the researchers at Graz University of Technology who discovered Meltdown, called it "probably one of the worst CPU bugs ever found" in an interview with Reuters.

Gruss said Meltdown was the more serious problem in the short term but could be decisively stopped with software patches. Spectre, the broader bug that applies to nearly all computing devices, is harder for hackers to take advantage of but less easily patched and will be a bigger problem in the long term, he said.

Speaking on CNBC, Intel's Krzanich said Google researchers told Intel of the flaws "a while ago" and that Intel had been testing fixes that device makers who use its chips will push out next week. Before the problems became public, Google on its blog said Intel and others planned to disclose the issues on Jan. 9. Google said it informed the affected companies about the "Spectre" flaw on June 1, 2017 and reported the "Meltdown" flaw after the first flaw but before July 28, 2017.

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The flaws were first reported by tech publication The Register. It also reported that the updates to fix the problems could causes Intel chips to operate 5 percent to 30 percent more slowly. (http://bit.ly/2CsRxkj)

Intel denied that the patches would bog down computers based on Intel chips.

"Intel has begun providing software and firmware updates to mitigate these exploits," Intel said in a statement. "Contrary to some reports, any performance impacts are workload-dependent, and, for the average computer user, should not be significant and will be mitigated over time."

ARM spokesman Phil Hughes said that patches had already been shared with the companies' partners, which include many smartphone manufacturers.

"This method only works if a certain type of malicious code is already running on a device and could at worst result in small pieces of data being accessed from privileged memory," Hughes said in an email.

AMD chips are also affected by at least one variant of a set of security flaws but that it can be patched with a software update. The company said it believes there "is near zero risk to AMD products at this time."

Google said in a blog post that Android phones running the latest security updates are protected, as are its own Nexus and Pixel phones with the latest security updates. Gmail users do not need to take any additional action to protect themselves, but users of its Chromebooks, Chrome web browser and many of its Google Cloud services will need to install updates.

Amazon Web Services, a cloud computing service used by businesses, said that most of its internet servers were already patched and the rest were in the process of being patched.

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