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Containing the Spectre

Posted by Bjarni RĂșnar on January 7, 2018

Hello everybody!

The year 2018 started with a bit of a bang, for those of us who are concerned with computer and Internet security. By now you have probably heard of the Spectre and Meltdown attacks. These security holes are big news, because they represent a new class of security vulnerability - and almost everybody is potentially vulnerable. The industry is still working through the implications.

Quoting the official site:

Meltdown and Spectre exploit critical vulnerabilities in modern processors. These hardware vulnerabilities allow programs to steal data which is currently processed on the computer. While programs are typically not permitted to read data from other programs, a malicious program can exploit Meltdown and Spectre to get hold of secrets stored in the memory of other running programs.

And quoting Bruce Schneier:

... there's no patch for Spectre; the microprocessors have to be redesigned to prevent the attack, and that will take years. [...] This is bad, but expect it more and more. Several trends are converging in a way that makes our current system of patching security vulnerabilities harder to implement.

So that's the bad news. Is there any good news?

Well, all is not lost: Spectre, Meltdown and similar as-yet-undiscovered CPU bugs are only a problem when a malicious person can run code on a computer you rely on. This happens more than you might think, but this limitation does tell us how we can protect ourselves today, tomorrow and next week.

The most important advice is standard. You've heard it before, but it bears repeating: prompty install any available updates to your browser and operating system, and avoid installing software (including mobile apps) from untrusted sources. Let the professionals help you.

But almost as important, is to run an ad blocker or disable Javascript entirely (I use NoScript to do exactly that). Malicious ads on the web, and to a lesser degree entire malicious websites, are the most immediate risk to the general public.

Although the mainstream browsers have already released updates that make exploiting Spectre from Javascript more difficult, it is worth remembering that attacks always get better and new ones are discovered all the time. Blocking Javascript by default (and then selectively re-enabling it on sites you trust) is a bit like washing your hands - it takes a bit of time and effort, but it's an invaluable first line of defense.

Finally, if you really want to defend against Meltdown, Spectre and whatever the next big bug will be: Avoid shared hardware.

That means avoid VPS servers. Avoid cloud services. If privacy and confidentiality of your data matters to you, you may want to keep it on hardware directly under your control (and make sure you have good backups).

It so happens that this is Mailpile's driving philosophy.

We want to empower everyone, not just techies, to store their e-mail on devices under their control. This is very difficult today. Our primary goal is, and always has been, to make it much easier. For everyone.

If you would like to support our work, we accept donations, code contributions and translations. Or just keep an eye on this blog and help spread the word!

If you would rather support something more immediately related to the problem at hand, the NoScript team also accepts donations. They are absolutely worth supporting.

Thanks, and stay safe!



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