Alex HoldenThe most prominent data security events of 2017, such as WannaCry and Equifax, were direct results of poor patching practices. Now, 2018 is off to a menacing start with disclosure of two hardware vulnerabilities affecting most modern microprocessors and requiring a number of patches on several levels of defenses.

To clarify, Meltdown is a vulnerability that allows core system memory access by any user process, while Spectre allows an unprivileged application to access the memory space of others.

What can happen? In simplest terms, one program executed on your computer can gain access to data that belongs to other users or utilize the operating system to access data, including passwords and personal data. What is affected? Most personal computers, servers and mobile devices. What can we do about this? The simple answer: patch everything that is affected, including BIOS, OS and browsers.

If everything seems to be simple, why is this a such a big problem? The answer is not so simplistic. As far as the scope, possible vectors of attack and potential ramifications, these two vulnerabilities present perhaps the largest impact to our computer systems and networks that we have seen in a very long time.

Let’s start with the fact that it is likely that every computer and mobile device in your infrastructure is somehow affected, along with a significant number of IoT devices. Arguably, your shared environments (such as Citrix) present the greatest vulnerability, as these systems are designed for multiple users and the core design is a secure segregation between user resources.

Let’s consider the work of many of us in the security community. We need to identify all the systems and software that must be patched, test the patches, implement them and deal with “side effects.” This includes legacy systems, as the vulnerabilities include microprocessors manufactured all the way back to 1995.

Today, while there are challenges with some patches that introduce processing slowness and compatibility issues, not patching is not an option. We learned our lessons with the 2017 NotPetya ransomware, where the compromise of only one unpatched system would begin infecting the rest of the adjacent network devices.

As of now, there are no known mass exploitations of these vulnerabilities, but it is not because the hackers discounted these issues as “unexploitable.” In the world of hackers, exploitation of a vulnerability is only part of the equation. First, you must have a reliable distribution vector for the malware. Can an exploit be distributed in an email, on malicious sites or through other means to facilitate infection?

After malware is allowed to execute its exploit, it must deploy a malicious payload – a set of instructions of what to do next. Sometimes, it is an instruction set to allow victim system interaction with a Command & Control server, or it is simply used to deploy ransomware. At this stage, there must be a lot of consideration to bypass typical security controls such as anti-virus, IPS and other safety tools.

Lastly, there must be a mass monetization component – for ransomware, it is a setup to ask for a ransom, receive payments, release the encryption keys; in other cases, to facilitate data identification and exfiltration. None of these tasks are simple for the hackers and they can rarely be accomplished by a single person. Thus, nearly a month after the world became aware of the microprocessor vulnerabilities, there is still no mass exploitation.

Today on the dark web, the most common relevant conversation is not about abuse of Meltdown or Spectre. The most entrepreneurial hackers want to know if there are similar vulnerabilities in microprocessors that are not discovered and patched. Hacker bounties for these zero-day bugs are astronomical, and for good reason. No matter how good your system security is, if there is a fundamental hardware flaw, almost nothing will stop hackers from exploiting it on any vulnerable target of their choice.

Meanwhile, as hackers are regrouping and fantasizing about the unexploited data caches, let’s keep diligently patching and hope that the next vulnerability or wave of exploitation will not be brutal.

Alex Holden, President and CISO, Hold Security, LLC

[ISACA Now Blog]

By Philip Hung Cao

Philip Hung Cao (aka #tekfarmer), MSCS, ZTX-I, CCISO, CISM, CCSP, CCSK, CASP, GICSP, PCNSE is a Strategist, Advisor, Contributor, Educator and Motivator. He has 20 years' experience in IT/Cybersecurity industry in various sectors & positions.

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