On January 3, the world learned about a series of major security vulnerabilities in modern microprocessors. Called Spectre and Meltdown, these vulnerabilities were discovered by several different researchers last summer, disclosed to the microprocessors’ manufacturers, and patched—at least to the extent possible.
This news isn’t really any different from the usual endless stream of security vulnerabilities and patches, but it’s also a harbinger of the sorts of security problems we’re going to be seeing in the coming years. These are vulnerabilities in computer hardware, not software. They affect virtually all high-end microprocessors produced in the last 20 years. Patching them requires large-scale coordination across the industry, and in some cases drastically affects the performance of the computers. And sometimes patching isn’t possible; the vulnerability will remain until the computer is discarded.
Spectre and Meltdown aren’t anomalies. They represent a new area to look for vulnerabilities and a new avenue of attack. They’re the future of security—and it doesn’t look good for the defenders.
Modern computers do lots of things at the same time. Your computer and your phone simultaneously run several applications—or apps. Your browser has several windows open. A cloud computer runs applications for many different computers. All of those applications need to be isolated from each other. For security, one application isn’t supposed to be able to peek at what another one is doing, except in very controlled circumstances. Otherwise, a malicious advertisement on a website you’re visiting could eavesdrop on your banking details, or the cloud service purchased by some foreign intelligence organization could eavesdrop on every other cloud customer, and so on. The companies that write browsers, operating systems, and cloud infrastructure spend a lot of time making sure this isolation works.