How will Meltdown and Spectre impact industrial environments?

Despite being only weeks into 2018, already you’ve read reports about two serious security flaws, Meltdown and Spectre, impacting computer systems worldwide. The flaws have been discovered in computer processors and could allow hackers to steal sensitive data without users’ knowledge.

The Meltdown security flaw has already been described as ‘one of the worst CPU bugs ever found’ by one of the researchers that found the vulnerability. It enables hackers to bypass the hardware barrier between applications run by users and the computer’s operating system. This means that they can steal the secrets of other programs and the operating system.

Spectre is similar but different. The bug breaks the isolation between different applications, allowing attackers to trick error-free programs into leaking confidential data, despite best practices being followed. It has been suggested that Spectre is more difficult for hackers to take advantage of but is also harder to fix, meaning it could potentially be a greater threat in the long term. To put the scale of the issue into context, only 4% of business mobile devices have been patched against both chip vulnerabilities[1] thus far.

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How could Meltdown and Spectre affect ICS/SCADA systems?

The problem these vulnerabilities have created, especially in the case of Spectre, is that almost every computing device is affected, including desktop PCs, laptops, tablets, smartphones and cloud computing systems. With Meltdown, virtually all Intel x86-64 processors built since 1995 are affected. Due to the nature and criticality of both vulnerabilities, vendors work hard and develop and release patches fast. That said, in the case of Spectre there are currently no patches available and as it represents a whole new class of attacks, one patch alone will not fix all affected devices.

As for Meltdown, there are patches available from official vendors but there are some caveats to consider before applying them, especially for those working within the ICS/SCADA or IIoT domain. While the patches already released are simple to deploy, they can cause a 5% to 30% drop in performance. A normal computer user may not even notice this difference, but in the industrial domain this reduction in performance could be extremely dangerous. Also vendors have reported other issues like instability and accessibility of certain systems[2].

Best practice security

To overcome the potential service reduction within ICS/SCADA and IIoT systems, Applied Risk advises organisations to follow security best practices to ensure that their environment has a Defense-in-Depth principle in place, critical systems are properly segregated, and patches are tested before deployment.

Following the proliferation of IIoT technology use in industrial environments, there are now nearly 1 trillion devices attached to the Internet. This means vendors have a lot of work to do in 2018 to ensure Meltdown and Spectre don’t turn into industry defining security issues. Simply upgrading the CPU on all devices is not feasible, due to the sheer scale problem. End users must be aware of the potential dangers the flaws pose and be cautious implementing devices. A thorough risk assessment and taking measures accordingly is recommended.

Stay tuned for future updates, recommendations, and ICS/IIoT best practices related to Meltdown and Spectre, and for information about how Applied Risk can help. Contact us to learn more.



[1]http://www.itpro.co.uk/exploits/30299/just-4-of-bu...

[2] https://www.theregister.co.uk/2018/01/15/meltdown_ics/