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New security flaws have been found in Intel chips—this is what you need to do right now

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The four new vulnerabilities, uncovered by cybersecurity researchers, affect almost every chip the firm has made since 2011.

The news: Intel and a group of security researchers from universities and security firms around the world have revealed four security flaws similar to the Spectre and Meltdown holes uncovered last year that affected billions of chips. There’s no evidence (yet) that the latest set of vulnerabilities have been exploited by hackers, but they could be used to pilfer all kinds of sensitive data.

The Not-So-Fab Four: The flaws make it possible to target computers’ central processing units, or CPUs. These are the “brains” of the machines, orchestrating their other functions. To speed things up, CPUs use a process known as “speculative execution,” which means they try to guess ahead of time the processes they will be asked to run and the data needed.

Like Spectre and Meltdown, the new security holes can be used to compromise CPUs engaged in this guesswork. One called ZombieLoad could let intruders steal information from applications and cloud-based systems. Another called Rogue In-Flight Data Load could manipulate chips’ memories in ways that expose sensitive information. The two other flaws, dubbed Fallout and Store-to-leak-forwarding, could be exploited to steal data or compromise operating systems. (If you want to check whether your computers are at risk or get more details about the flaws, you can use an online tool made available by the researchers here.)

What you should do: The best fix would be to rip out all the chips and replace them—but that would be prohibitively expensive. The next best fix is to apply software patches developed by Intel and others. Amazon, Apple, and Google have already released patches—so make sure you are updated to the latest version. Apple says iPhones, iPads, and Watches are not affected. Some security researchers also recommend disabling hyper-threading, an Intel feature that lets certain core tasks run in parallel on its chips to boost processing speed. In a statement, Intel pointed out that its latest generations of chips are not affected

The disclosure debate: This new chipocalypse will rekindle the debate over how and when hardware vulnerabilities should be disclosed to the public. Intel has said it discovered the flaws a year ago, but it needed time to work out disclosure plans and develop patches. However, that means many customers have only just discovered that their machines were more vulnerable to hacking than they thought.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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