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Spectre vulnerability

Spectre vulnerability definition

The Spectre vulnerability is a security flaw in modern microprocessors that allows attackers to access sensitive information through a process known as “speculative execution”.

Speculative execution is a method modern CPUs use to maximize performance by guessing a program's future instructions and preparing by running them in advance. When the assumed instruction path is correct, it significantly improves performance. The problem arises when speculative execution affects the cache state and leaves traces that attackers can exploit to access sensitive data, causing a security risk.

Mitigating Spectre vulnerability

The vulnerability is deeply ingrained in the designs of most modern CPUs. However, it’s possible to reduce the risk of exploitation by combining some software and hardware measures, such as:

  • Software patches: Operating system developers have released patches that introduce new security barriers, limiting the ability of speculative execution to access sensitive data. Make sure you have the latest version of their OS to benefit from these patches.
  • Compiler changes: Developers can use modified compilers that introduce barriers into software at compile time to prevent certain types of speculative execution.
  • Microcode updates: Some vulnerabilities can be reduced through updates to the processor’s microcode, which change how the processor handles certain instructions. This requires a firmware update from the processor manufacturer.
  • Web browser updates: Browser developers have introduced changes to limit the ability of JavaScript code to exploit Spectre through a timing attack. Be sure to keep your browser up-to-date.
  • Disabling features: In some cases, mitigation can involve turning off certain CPU features, like hyper-threading, which can increase the surface for speculative execution attacks.
  • Cloud infrastructure updates: For cloud-based systems, infrastructure providers can update their systems to isolate user processes from each other.
  • Hardware changes: In the long term, processor manufacturers can introduce hardware changes to limit the impact of speculative execution. Be aware that these changes will only benefit new systems, not existing ones.