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Who would have ex-Spectre-d this?

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At Consult Hyperion we’re always interested in the latest news in cyber security and in case you haven’t heard, 2018 has started with the news that the most processors found inside current computers, tablets, phones and cloud servers are vulnerable to a new class of attack. These attacks have been named Meltdown and Spectre, and are caused by common optimisations built into modern processors. Processors designed by Intel, AMD and ARM are all affected to varying degrees and, as it is a hardware issue (possibly dating back to 1995 if some reports are correct), it could affect any operating system. It’s likely the machine you’re reading this on is affected – whether it’s running Windows, Macs, iOS, Android or is in “the cloud”!!

At a basic level, these vulnerabilities break down the fundamental security barriers between an application and the operating system (OS). This means that a malicious application running on your processor may be able to read your, or your OS’s, secrets which may include passwords, keys or possibly payment data, present in processor caches or memory.

I’m not going to discuss how the vulnerabilities achieve what they do (there’s plenty of sites which attempt to do this), however I’d rather consider its impact on people, such as our clients, who may be handling sensitive data on mobile devices – e.g. payments, banking information. If you do want to understand the low-level details of the vulnerabilities and how they work, I suggest looking at which has links to the original papers on both Spectre and Meltdown.

So, what can be done about it? The good news is that whilst the current processors cannot be fixed, several operating system patches have already been released to try and mitigate these problems.

However, my concern is that as this is a new class of attack, Spectre and Meltdown may be the tip of a new iceberg. Even over the last week, the issue has changed from it only affecting Intel processors, to now including AMD and ARM to some extent. I suspect that over the coming weeks and months, as more security researchers (and probably less savoury characters as well) start looking into this class of attack, there may be additional vulnerabilities discovered. Whether they would already be mitigated by the patches coming out now, we’ll have to see.

It should also be understood that for the vulnerability to be exploited, there are a few conditions which must be met:

1. You must have a vulnerable processor (highly likely)
2. You must have a vulnerable OS (i.e. unpatched)
3. An attacker must be able to execute their malicious code on your device

For point 1, most modern devices will be vulnerable to some extent, so we can probably assume the condition is always met.

Point 2 highlights two perennial problems, a.) getting people to apply software updates to their devices and b.) getting access to appropriate software updates.

For many devices, software updates are frequent, reliable and easy to install (often automatic) and there are very few legitimate reasons for consumers to not just take the latest updates whenever they are made available. We would always recommend that consumers apply security updates as soon as possible.

A bigger problem for some platforms is the availability of updates in the first place. Within the mobile space, Microsoft, Apple and Google all regularly release software updates; however, many Android OEMs can be slow to release updates for their devices (if they release them at all). Android devices are notorious for not running the latest version of Android – for example, Google’s latest information ( – obtained 5th January 2018 and represents devices accessing the Google Play Store in the prior 7 days) shows that for the top 81% of devices in use:

• 0.5% of devices are running the latest version of Android – Oreo (v8.0, released August 2017)
• 25% are running Nougat (v7.x, released August 2016)
• 30% running Marshmallow (v6.0, released October 2015)
• 26% running Lollipop (v5.x, released November 2014).

It should be noted that Google’s Nexus and Pixel devices have a commitment to receiving updates for a set period of time, and Google is very keen to encourage OEMs to improve their support for prompt and frequent updates – for example, the Android One ( programme highlights that these devices get regular software updates.

If you compare to iOS, it’s estimated ( that less than a month after it was released in December 2017, over 75% of iOS devices are already running iOS 11.

The final requirement is Point 3 – getting malicious code onto your device. This could be via a malicious application installed on a device, however, the malicious code could also come via a website as it’s been shown that even JavaScript sandboxed in a browser can exploit these vulnerabilities. As its not unheard of for legitimate websites to unwittingly serve up 3rd-party adverts which contain malicious code, a user doesn’t have to be accessing malicious websites for the problem to occur. Several browsers are receiving patches to try and prevent Meltdown and Spectre working via this route. Regarding malicious applications, we’d always recommend that applications are only ever installed from legitimate sources, however malicious apps still regularly appear in legitimate app stores, so this is not fool-proof.

Thinking specifically about mobile banking and HCE payment applications, which is what interests many of our customers – these applications should already be including protections to prevent, or at least detect, malicious attacks. These protections typically include numerous measures such as root/jailbreak detection, code obfuscation, data minimisation, white-box cryptography and so on.

If anything, these latest vulnerabilities are a useful reminder that security is not a single task within a project plan, ticked off when complete before moving onto the next sprint or task. Rather, it is an ongoing concern for the lifetime of the system – something that Consult Hyperion quietly helps its customers with. A year ago, few would have considered this class of attack to either have been possible, let alone something which needs to be actively mitigated.

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