Intel faced some bad PR at the beginning of the month thanks to chip security vulnerabilities. Although initial reporting placed Intel uncomfortably in the spotlight, the discovery of hardware issues raises industry-wide concerns. Intel remains confident in its long-term market performance despite taking a hit immediately after the announcement. Operating systems, including Microsoft, Android, and Apple’s iOS quickly released software patches in response to reports.
Features vs Flaws
The news about two potential hacks broke simultaneously. Security experts dubbed them Spectre and Meltdown. According to researchers, Meltdown is easier to exploit and easier to fix. These exploits were discovered in a research setting, and we have no confirmed reports of hackers actually using them. In the security world, white hat researchers race against black hat hackers to discover solutions before hackers can exploit vulnerabilities.
Obviously, vulnerabilities aren’t worked into chip design on purpose. Security represents one of many considerations for chipmakers. Among these considerations: processing speed, memory storage, thermal ranges, power consumption, and so on. Cutting edge chip design integrates all of these factors for optimal processing performance.
Security vs Speed
The theoretical hacks take advantage of speculative execution, a feature in which processors predict which applications are likely to be opened next. This speeds up the process of launching software and increases operating speed. Both hacks remove the barriers between applications that are meant to silo user data.
Thankfully, the solution to these chip vulnerabilities remains the same as always: Install software updates from your operating system and trusted applications immediately. Doing so protects you from potential hackers. This will slow down your processing speeds; the rate of slowing depends on the age of your processor, with older processors experiencing more slowdown and the most modern processors experiencing minimal changes in speed. While this might cost companies that deal with a lot of data, security breaches are far more costly than the little bit of downtime required to install updates, and the slight lag in processing speeds that may follow.