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iPhone, PC chip security risk: What you need to know

We know, it sounds like clickbait: “There’s a secret threat inside your smartphone or home computer!”

It’s true, though, and it’s something you need to be aware of if you own or use either of those devices on a daily basis.

What is it?

Security researchers discovered this week that many (if not most) of the computers and smartphones in use today have a security flaw built into their processing chips. Called Spectre or Meltdown, this flaw could allow an intruder on your device or computer to view and collect sensitive data like passwords or PINs, or see the tabs you are viewing in an internet browser.

Researchers say the flaw comes from “speculative execution,” a method which modern chips use to predict what they’ll be asked to process next. It speeds things up, but researchers said they discovered that queueing up the information exposes it rather than keeping it in isolation and protected from attack.

Spectre is a problem affecting nearly all modern computers, and Apple revealed it’s also affecting nearly all their devices. Meltdown appears specific to Intel processing chips.

What do I do?

First, keep all your software up to date. Don’t rely on your computer or i-Device to tell you it needs updating. Patches will be coming out in the coming days and weeks to plug these security holes, so the sooner your apply them the less risk you will be to hackers attempting to exploit this vulnerability.

When those patches come out, though, be prepared for things to slow down a bit. Experts said working around this vulnerability could slow down processing speeds by up to 30 percent, and the only true long-term solution is physically replacing the chips affected.

Lastly, be wary of any untrusted apps or links which could be used to launch attacks against still-vulnerable systems. This should be common sense, but the frequency of those kinds of attacks will increase once hackers start developing methods to leverage Spectre or Meltdown to their advantage. Researchers say that could take some time, but that doesn’t mean you should let your guard down.

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