ZombieLoad: Boffins discover four new Spectre-like vulns in Intel CPUs

New security flaw in Intel chips could affect millions

Intel refers to the vulnerabilities as microarchitectural data sampling, or MDS, which can be exploited by attackers to access data being used not just by applications, but also containers and virtual machines. The three computer scientists, together with Graz University of Technology Professor Stefan Mangard, were already involved in the discovery of the serious security gaps Meltdown and Spectre previous year. The majority of Intel processors dating back to 2011 are said to be affected by the constituent bugs that allow the Zombieload Attack to operate with success.

The security bug is capable of taking advantage of the vulnerabilities of Intel chips when a speculative execution is performed by the processors to improve chip performance. Depending on whether you're talking to Intel or the researchers who discovered the techniques, these exploits apparently range in severity from "low to medium" (Intel) to relatively significant-worse than Spectre but not quite as bad as Meltdown. In this case "user-level secrets, such as browser history, website content, user keys, and passwords, or system-level secrets, such as disk encryption keys", will be possible to purloin.

It has also released microcode updates to address the vulnerabilities, although these could apparently have a 9% performance hit on cloud machines and around 3% on desktops and laptops.

"Spying tools should never be underestimated, as they are constantly being tried and tested in the wild", said Jake Moore, Security Specialist at ESET.

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PC users are also affected by these new vulnerabilities and will need to patch their systems, but most users probably won't notice any performance impact.

According to the research paper, disabling hyperthreading might be the only way to completely prevent being at risk of a Zombieload attack. "Overall, as an industry it doesn't help that security has a reputation as a discipline for slowing things down and being 'Dr No.' Security early is always better than security late, so I'm most interested in the after-action findings from Intel". And while the set of four attacks all operate in a similar manner to Meltdown and Spectre, these new MDS attacks (ZombieLoad, Fallout, and RIDL) appear to be easier to execute. By exploiting the feature, attackers can snatch data directly from the processor.

If any updates are available you should download and install them now.

Google says it has opted against trying to mitigate MDS vulnerabilities in Chrome and advises users to use OS-level mitigations.

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