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New ‘Zombieload’ attack allows hackers to steal personal data directly from consumers

The vulnerability affects all Intel chips produced since 2011

Photo (c) weerapatkiatdumrong - Getty Images
Security researchers from Graz University of Technology have discovered a new set of vulnerabilities affecting all Intel chips made since 2011. The “Zombieload” bug, as it’s dubbed, and three related vulnerabilities allow hackers to steal sensitive data directly from a user’s processor.

The latest flaws were discovered by the same researchers who uncovered the Spectre and Meltdown bugs last year. The researchers said Zombieload bears many similarities to those bugs.

“While programs normally only see their own data, a malicious program can exploit the fill buffers to get hold of secrets currently processed by other running programs,” the researchers said. “These secrets can be user-level secrets, such as browser history, website content, user keys, and passwords, or system-level secrets, such as disk encryption keys.”

Up to each user to decide what to do

Almost all computers with Intel chips dating back to 2011 are affected by the recently discovered vulnerabilities.

Though there currently aren’t any reports of hackers exploiting the flaw, Apple said users should disable hyper-threading processing technology in order to mitigate the risk of an attacker taking advantage of the Zombieload vulnerabilities.

"Although there are no known exploits affecting customers at the time of this writing, customers with computers at heightened risk or who run untrusted software on their Mac can optionally enable full mitigation to prevent harmful apps from exploiting these vulnerabilities," Apple said on its support page. "Full mitigation requires using the Terminal app to enable an additional CPU instruction and disable hyper-threading processing technology."

However, fixing the flaw can slow down a system by as much as 40 percent, according to internal testing by Apple.

The average person “won't need to take such extreme measures to protect their computers, but certain at-risk users, like government employees and business executives, might want to take the precaution,” according to technology website Tom’s Guide.

Intel said in a statement that it’s “not recommending that Intel HT be disabled, and it’s important to understand that doing so does not alone provide protection against [Microarchitectural Data Sampling].”

“We’ve provided more information on our website and continue to encourage everyone to keep their systems up to date, as it’s one of the best ways to stay protected,” Intel said.

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