What Are Meltdown And Spectre, And Why Are These Computer Bugs A Big Problem?

Senior Contributor


Until this week, only the nerdiest of nerds were looking at bugs dubbed “Meltdown” and “Spectre.” Then Apple admitted the bugs were present in almost all of its products, and everybody freaked out. And although you probably don’t have anything to worry about, there’s good reason to be concerned. Meltdown and Spectre can be fixed, but it’s going to slow down devices, force changes in how we make anything with a microchip, and generally make the whole world miserable.

  • What are Meltdown and Spectre? To explain that, let’s talk about how your computer works, at the level of the chips. In order to stay on top of the absurdly complex tasks we demand computers do, they have to “think ahead” so to speak. It’s called “speculative execution.” For example, if you load Facebook on a tab, your computer can guess you’ll want to enter your password. So it loads up your password file. What’s important, though, is that there’s a wall between your processor’s tasks and the other applications on your computer, and between your web browser and the other things you’re doing. Or, rather, there’s supposed to be. It turns out a flaw means there are cracks in that wall. The cracks between processor and application are Meltdown. The cracks in the wall between applications is Spectre.
  • The good news is that Spectre and Meltdown are insanely complex bugs that are difficult to exploit: Think of it like a crook trying to break into your car to steal your phone by completely disassembling your car, taking your phone, swapping out your phone with a dummy phone so you don’t notice anything, and then reassembling the whole thing. It’s possible, it’ll work in theory, but in this particular case, you might as well just smash the window.

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