Spectre and Meltdown do not represent a simple exploit, but rather a newly discovered type of side channel attack that affects all modern cpus from your smartphone cpu to your computer. The entire computing world is at risk.
The basics of the attack
Imagine a person was sitting in a chair just before you walked into a room. When you walk in the room, they ask you to guess which chair they were sitting in. While you cannot go back in time and see, you could simply feel the chairs in the room and find out which one feels warm. This is analogous to a side-channel attack. The fact that the chair holds heat leaks information. Spectre and Meltdown show a method of using something called speculative execution to generate side-channel information. Information is leaked by detecting cpu caching of certain values. In essence they allow one process to gather data that another process has stored in memory without permission.
Websites you visit run code on your computer
Yes, simply visiting a website can trigger a Spectre style attack and do so invisibly. You won’t know it’s happening.
These attacks leave limited forensic trace information
Different than the majority of exploit attacks and viruses we see today, Spectre does not modify binaries on your machine or leave a trail of infected files. Instead, it affects the CPU cache, so there may be no easy way to even know you were hit by an attack later or forensically trace it back. Even if the exploit code is cached and recovered it will be difficult to know what information the attack yielded.
Stealing cryptocurrency is the perfect attack usage
Protecting cryptocurrency is about protecting information: Your private keys. Reading information is the specific capability of these attacks — A hack could make off with your private keys and you would not even know it happened till the cryptocurrency left your account.
Cryptocurrency users visit common websites
If you are interested in cryptocurrency you probably visit websites that discuss them which presents a problem: Even if the website is legitimate and trustworthy, a simple paid advertisement can run a Spectre attack in your browser and potentially recover cryptocurrency private keys. Once the keys are stolen, the cryptocurrency can be transferred without your permission. There is more immediate reward to attacking cryptocurrency websites than probably any other niche pocket of the internet. There is nearly a trillion dollars of value to extract.
Known attacks are currently in proof-of-concept stage
Since proof-of-concept attacks are available, malicious actors will be crafting them into real attacks in the coming days, weeks, and months that will get more sophisticated over time. This could also mean expansion of the attack vectors beyond what we currently know about.
The OS and browser patches released do not solve the problem
Unlike exploits we normally see, the patches released thus far do not completely solve the problem. First of all, the current patches only close some of the known holes, not all of them. Secondly, these attacks represent a new type of attack, and fixing all the ways they could be exploited may even take years because we don’t know all the ways they can be exploited yet.
What you can do to protect yourself
- Make sure you’re running the latest patches on all your devices. This includes your operating system and browser as well, but please keep in mind this does not plug all the holes.
- Cease usage of any browser-based password managers. Modern browsers have password tools built in and also allow extensions to store passwords through services such as Lastpass. Metamask may also be at risk. Keep your passwords as far away from your computer’s browser as possible. If you use a secondary application on your computer to store and save passwords that will make attacks more difficult. Furthermore, storage on a secondary device will be even more secure. This could be your phone or something like this.
- Move your cryptocurrency private keys off of exchanges when you aren’t actively trading them. Remember, exchanges are also susceptible to these attacks and may lose your funds if they are attacked.
- Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Even if you use hardware wallets, consider using multiple hardware wallets from different brands and maybe mix in some paper wallets too. Remember that every storage approach has weaknesses. Sometimes you can lose cryptocurrency from purely bugs and so for this reason you should not use a single tool to store all your assets. Even particular cryptocurrencies may be exploited and you should consider splitting any cryptocurrency you hold amongst multiple in case a catastrophic bug occurs in one. Diversify in every direction possible.