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Meltdown and Spectre: what's your risk?

This week, a pair of vulnerabilities broke basic security for practically all computers. That's not an overstatement. Revelations about Meltdown and Spectre have wreaked digital havoc and left a critical mass of confusion in their wake. Not only are they terrifically complex vulnerabilities, the fixes that do exist have come in patchwork fashion. With most computing devices made in the last two decades at risk, it's worth taking stock of how the clean-up efforts are going.

Part of the pandemonium over addressing these vulnerabilities stems from the necessary involvement of multiple players. Processor manufacturers like Intel, AMD, Qualcomm, and ARM are working with the hardware companies that incorporate their chips, as well as the software companies that actually run code on them to add protections. Intel can't single-handedly patch the problem, because third-party companies implement its processors differently across the tech industry. As a result, groups like Microsoft, Apple, Google, Amazon, and the Linux Project have all been interacting and collaborating with researchers and the processor makers to push out fixes.

So how's it going so far? Better, at least, than it seemed at first. The United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team and others initially believed that the only way to protect against Meltdown and Spectre would be total hardware replacement. The vulnerabilities impact fundamental aspects of how mainstream processors manage and silo data, and replacing them with chips that correct these flaws still may be the best bet for high-security environments. In general, though, replacing basically every processor ever simply isn't going to happen. CERT now recommends "apply updates" as the solution for Meltdown and Spectre.

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