The Major Flaws Affecting PCs and Smartphones

Over the next few weeks there’s a very good chance your PC or laptop will take a significant performance hit, possibly up to 30 percent slower. Worse is the fact you can do nothing about it, as the slowdown is a side effect of fixing a major design flaw in Intel processors.

If your computer uses an Intel processor produced in the last decade, it probably contains the design flaw. Intel has not yet released a list of affected chips; it’s keeping the details under lock and key until operating system patches have been released for Linux, Windows and macOS.

As The Register reports, the flaw is thought to allow user programs to gain access to protected kernel memory areas. The kernel is the core of an operating system and controls anything and everything running on it. It is therefore extremely important the kernel memory remains secure due to the sensitive information it can contain.

Although nobody outside of Intel knows the specifics, the flaw is thought to be so serious it could allow any software, even a bit of JavaScript running in a web browser, to access and steal data stored in the protected kernel memory. So that includes your passwords, login keys or any files that happen to be cached when unauthorized access occurs.

The vulnerability alone is bad enough, but the fix makes the situation even worse. Closing the security hole will result in a significant performance hit to each system. Current estimates suggest that hit could be as high as 30 percent. You read that right, once your system is patched it may run 30 percent slower for certain tasks.

There is no way around this if your system uses an Intel chip. Some newer processor models are thought to be immune, or at least better able to work around the flaw, but until Intel releases specifics we can’t confirm which ones. If you are running an AMD processor, you’re fine. AMD confirmed its processors are not vulnerable.

Linux kernel patches are already available, with Microsoft expected to roll out the Windows patch with next week’s Patch Tuesday. Also keep in mind this flaw will impact all of Intel’s major corporate customers. Imagine how many Intel chips are running inside Amazon’s or Facebook’s datacenters, for example, and what a performance hit will mean for them.

“Contrary to some reports, any performance impacts are workload-dependent, and, for the average computer user, should not be significant and will be mitigated over time,” the company insisted.

The chip maker didn’t go into detail about the exact problem, but suggested Intel products aren’t the only ones affected. “Based on the analysis to date, many types of computing devices — with many different vendors’ processors and operating systems — are susceptible to these exploits,” it said.

Furthermore, “Intel believes these exploits do not have the potential to corrupt, modify or delete data.”

The company originally decided to disclose the bug next week, but opted to release a statement on Wednesday to address what it considered to be inaccurate media reports. It’s now delivering the software and firmware fixes to its partners.

“Check with your operating system vendor or system manufacturer and apply any available updates as soon as they are available,” Intel said.