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Spectre/Meltdown - should you be afraid?

If you're a regular bloke/lass and operate outside of technical computer circles, you might not have heard of a couple of terms haunting the computing world - "Spectre", a recently-discovered security flaw that affects most computer CPUs (Central Processing Units), and "Meltdown", a security flaw that only seems to affect Intel CPUs. Earlier last year, another flaw was detected called "Rowhammer".

While the Rowhammer issue was relatively easy to mitigate, the difference between it and the newer flaws is that the fixes for the new problems cause significant performance problems, particularly on older computers. This is an issue currently impacting all areas of computing worldwide - as a 1-30% performance decrease (depending on the type of computer and it's assigned tasks) for almost all computers is bad news, not just for companies, but also for power grids and the environment.

So should you be worried? Probably not. Both Apple and Microsoft have issued security patches to address these issues, so while you may experience some small slowdown of your computer (testing has shown the impact is low for a typical home user), you should be safe, security-wise. However if you're running an older operating system like Windows XP or Vista, you should upgrade, as patches will not be issued for it.

So why are these patches so necessary? Well, the security flaws basically allow hackers to take control of computers without the user even realising it, and they also leave no trace once the hackers are finished. They can (and will) be used in everything from industrial espionage to government manipulation, to stealing people's data including credit card details. Hopefully, given that the issue has been attacked so forthrightly by the IT community, the ability of hackers to exploit these hardware-level system exploits will be significantly reduced.

As long as the majority of the world's computer are immune, the threat is relatively low. However in countries like China where at least 15% of all computers are still running Windows XP, it could be an issue. If you personally are still running XP or Vista and have been waiting for the right time to upgrade your computer, now is that time. It's unlikely you'll be targeted, but why take that risk? Otherwise, just make sure your computer's operating system is receiving updates as it should, and there's no need to be afraid of Spectres or Meltdowns.

- Matt Bentley, computer expert at Bentley Home PC Support.
Email info@homepcsupport.co.nz or phone 0211348576.

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