Not all systems require full patching for the flaws right now, anyway, experts say.
Intel's unusual advisory this week urging its customers and partners to refrain from applying some of its firmware patches for the so-called Meltdown and Spectre flaws in its microprocessors illustrated just how pressured patching can backfire.
Navin Shenoy, executive vice president and general manager of Intel's Data Center, in a post called for customers and OEMs to halt installation of patches for its Broadwell and Haswell microprocessors after widespread reports of spontaneous rebooting of systems affixed with the new patches. Intel now plans to issue a fix for the Meltdown-Spectre fix, according to the company.
It's the latest in a string of missteps in the wake of the major disclosure earlier this month of critical flaws in most modern microprocessors: a common method used for performance optimization could allow an attacker to read sensitive system memory, which could contain passwords, encryption keys, and emails, for example. The vulnerabilities affect CPUs from Intel, AMD, and ARM.
Microsoft also has experienced problems with its operating system patches that provide workarounds for the microprocessor vulnerabilities, specifically its updates for Windows 10 on AMD microprocessor platforms. The vendor yesterday came out with new updates that resolve booting issues the original patches had caused. That came after compatibility problems with antivirus programs running on Windows that hadn't been updated for the Meltdown and Spectre workarounds.
The recently discovered Meltdown and Spectre hardware vulnerabilities allow for so-called side-channel attacks. With Meltdown, sensitive information in the kernel memory is at risk of being accessed nefariously; with Spectre, a user application could read the kernel memory as well as that of another application. The end result: an attacker could read sensitive system memory containing passwords, encryption keys, and emails — and use that information to help craft a local attack.
Both Intel's and Microsoft's patching problems underscore the downside of applying patches under pressure. "We've been telling our clients 'don't panic patch,'" says Neil MacDonald, vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner.
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