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Blog Post

Do Spectre and Meltdown Threaten Feds' Rush To the Cloud?

By Tobias Naegele

February 5, 2018

As industry responds to the Spectre and Meltdown cyber vulnerabilities, issuing microcode patches and restructuring the way high-performance microprocessors handle speculative execution, the broader fallout remains unclear: How will IT customers respond?

The realization that virtually every server installed over the past decade, along with millions of iPhones, laptops and other devices are exposed is one thing; the risk that hackers can exploit these techniques to leak passwords, encryption keys or other data across virtual security barriers in cloud-based systems, is another.

How Spectre and Meltdown Work

Spectre and Meltdown both take advantage of speculative execution, a technique designed to speed up computer processing by allowing a processor to start executing instructions before completing the security checks necessary to ensure the action is allowed, says Adi Gadwale, chief enterprise architect for systems integrator General Dynamics Information Technology (GDIT).

By executing code speculatively and then exploiting what happens by means of shared memory mapping, hackers can get a sneak peek into system processes, potentially exposing very sensitive data.

“Every time the processor discards an inappropriate action, the timing and other indirect signals can be exploited to discover memory information that should have been inaccessible,” Gadwale says. “Meltdown exposes kernel data to regular user programs. Spectre allows programs to spy on other programs, the operating system and on shared programs from other customers running in a cloud environment.”

Affecting the Federal IT Community

For a federal IT community racing to modernize, shut down legacy data centers and migrate government systems to the cloud, worries about data leaks raise new questions about the security of placing data in shared public clouds.

“It is likely that Meltdown and Spectre will reinforce concerns among those worried about moving to the cloud,” said Michael Daniel, president of the Cyber Threat Alliance who was a special assistant to President Obama and the National Security Council’s cybersecurity coordinator until January 2017.

“But the truth is that while those vulnerabilities do pose risks – and all clients of cloud service providers should be asking those providers how they intend to mitigate those risks – the case for moving to the cloud remains overwhelming. Overall, the benefits still far outweigh the risks.”

It’s important to understand there are no verified instances where hackers actually used either technique. With awareness spreading, vendors and operators move to quickly shut both techniques down.

“Two weeks ago, very few people knew about the problem,” says CTA’s Daniel. “Going forward, it’s now one of the vulnerabilities that organizations have to address in their IT systems. When thinking about your cyber risk management, your plans and processes have to account for the fact that these kinds of vulnerabilities will emerge from time to time and therefore you need a repeatable methodology for how you will review and deal with them when they happen.”

The National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center, part of the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team advises close consultation with product vendors and support contractors as updates and defenses evolve.