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Intel Meltdown processor security flaw – what you need to know

Millions of computers worldwide are now due a system update that could slow them down

Intel-Security-Processor-Meltdown

Computer processor giant Intel has hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons, as it was revealed this week that a serious security flaw – nicknamed Meltdown – may affect every chip it has produced for Macs and PCs in the past decade.

Intel is believed to have been aware of the issue for some months, and it has been consulting with operating system manufacturers, including Microsoft and Apple, on developing a fix.

UPDATE: One week on from these security revelations, we explore what’s happened and how to protect yourself in our followup article.

A further flaw, named Spectre, has been identified in chips made by Intel, ARM and AMD – predominantly used on mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones. AMD and ARM have stated that patches have already been delivered to address this.

There is no suggestion that the Meltdown threat has been exploited by hackers or other digital ne’er-do-wells. However, the vast scale of the problem means that countless devices may be affected. We explain what you need to know, and what you need to do.

Which? Tech Support – friendly one-to-one tech and computing advice from Which?

What is the Intel security flaw?

The security flaw in Intel chips creates an unwitting backdoor for programs or web services to access portions of a computer that can contain secure data. This could include login details and stored passwords. Were the flaw to be exploited, it could give hackers access to vast reams of personal data.

Which chips are affected?

If you’re using an Intel-powered computer produced in the past 10 years, then it’s likely your device is at risk. All Intel chips, from low-powered Celeron and Atom ranges right up to the latest 8th-gen Intel i7 processors have the same fundamental design flaw. These chips come packed into millions of Windows PCs, Macs and Linux computers worldwide.

It’s a good week to be AMD, Intel’s main computer processor rival. AMD chips are not affected by the Meltdown security issue, though AMD chips in mobile devices are affected by the Spectre processor flaw, just like all other mobile processor manufacturers.

How can I find out which processor my computer has?

On Windows PCs, your processor type is listed under your System Properties.

To open this, click Start and type system into the search box, then click the System or System information link that appears.

If you don’t see a search box, this means you’re probably using Windows XP. To check your processor type, click Start, then right-click My Computer and select Properties.

On a Mac, click the Apple menu (top-left of your screen) then select About this Mac from the drop-down menu.

What can I do about the Intel problem?

It’s important to install any new operating system updates that are released. These will be security patches from your operating system manufacturer to address the issue.

A release has already been created to solve the issue in some versions of Linux. But, the vast majority of consumers worldwide use Windows or Mac systems. Updates are expected imminently from Microsoft and Apple.

Don’t put off installing system and security updates – they’re an essential step to keeping your computer secure.

Will the fix slow down my computer?

It’s been reported that the system updates required to address the Intel chip issue could potentially slow down a computer’s operating speed by as much as 30%. If this proves to be true – and if it’s unavoidable – then this could make a dramatic difference to the day-to-day use of your computer.

The reason for the slowdown is likely to be the fundamental change in the way that Intel’s processors will be able to look up system information and control program and web service access to key parts of the PC. If a more secure but less efficient workaround is created, this will lead to noticeable slowdown.

We’ll be conducting tests to determine if this is the case as soon as the relevant system updates are available. If the suggested slowdown proves to be the case, then Intel, and potentially PC manufacturers worldwide, could be left facing a significant consumer backlash and even attempts to seek redress and compensation.

What about the Spectre security problem?

A separate security flaw – named Spectre – has also been identified. This one doesn’t simply affect Intel-branded processors, but also chips from AMD and ARM. Spectre affects the type of chips used in tablets and smartphones.

ARM suggests a security update has already been released to address the problem, while AMD insists there is ‘near zero risk to AMD products at this time’.

For more, read our full story on what you can do about the Spectre security flaw.

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