Processor Bugs: Meltdown and Spectre

There has been lots of stories relating to two new severe security vulnerabilities (one of which is in every Intel processor for over a decade); the trail of stories starts here. The details of the vulnerability are very highly technical so this post will concentrate on the less technical aspects.

As the original papers highlight, this is a result of a decades long policy across the industry of increasing complexity in pursuit of performance over security.

What Is Vulnerable?

For Meltdown, practically everything with an Intel processor; it is known that patches for Linux and Windows are being prepared. macOS was patched in December (if you have patched recently!).

Information on the vulnerability of other processors to Meltdown is a bit varied at present. It may be that AMD processors are vulnerable under certain conditions (although AMD have claimed that they are not vulnerable).

It is probable that Spectre is effective on rather more processors – AMD, and possibly some ARM processors (smartphones).

What Is The Effect?

In short, this is unknown. Technically Meltdown allows an attacker to access parts of kernel memory from any user process. This by itself sounds not so bad, but it allows an attacker to defeat defenses that have made whole classes of old attacks no longer viable. Essentially in combination with other attacks, the machine can be totally compromised.

In the case of Spectre, the effect is to be able to use the same sort of side-channel to view data from other processes address spaces, and in addition to escape “sandbox restrictions”. This means data leakage.

However this requires an attacker to be in control of data that controls the execution path through the victim’s code. Which is generically a hard thing to do, although in some cases (browsers) it is likely to be quite easy. Expect browser (and other application) patches to be released shortly … and apply them!

What Does The Meltdown Patch Do?

With the rumour that the the Meltdown patch causes a performance hit of 5-30%, there is some concern over it.

Technically the Meltdown patch is a work-around for the problem – it moves the kernel address space out of the user address space. Every time a system call is made, the processor has to reload the memory management unit, which takes time. Thus the performance hit.

How exactly this will effect performance remains unknown to a certain extent. Essentially applications that make very heavy use of system calls will notice a performance hit, and those that don’t will probably not notice a hit. In terms of desktop applications, it is likely that the web browser will be hit, but most other applications are likely to be unaffected.

It is likely that servers will notice the effect the most, and it is likely that only on heavily loaded servers will the effect be noticeable.


This is a serious set of vulnerabilities, and there is a significant risk of those vulnerabilities being used. In addition the mitigation for Intel processors has a significant risk of causing a performance issue.

However there is no reason to panic – patches are currently being prepared for release or have been released already.

There are many sources of information on these vulnerabilities being published; not all of which can be assumed to be totally correct (this posting included).

Links to further information :-

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The New Mirai

According to one news report, a new version of Mirai has recently been released causing an increase in the number of scans against port 2323 and port 23. According to our firewall logs, the number of scans against tcp/2323 has increased over the current month :-

There is indeed a big increase on the 22nd when the new malware was released, but interestingly enough, there is also a big increase in the week before, indicating that perhaps the new Mirai variant was released earlier than the researchers identified.

As a comparison, the same graph for tcp/22 – ssh, and a very heavily probed port looks like :-

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Serious OSX Vulnerability – Get Root Without A Password

Apple’s latest version of their OSX (or macOS) operating system – High Sierra – has been found to have a serious vulnerability that allows anyone with access to the device to have full administrative access (“root”) without a password.

On any vulnerable device, you can login as the root user without a password from the lock screen (or login screen). A software update to fix the problem is being prepared, but it would be very sensible to apply a fix in the short-term.

To fix the problem, simply set a password for the root user; start a Terminal and from the command-line, run the following command :-

sudo passwd root
Password: {Enter your own password here}
Changing password for root.
New password: {Enter root's new password}
Retype new password: {Enter it again}

You should probably store the new password for the root user in an appropriate password store (Keepass, or KeepassX), although you will probably never use it.

Links for further information :-

The vulnerability is an interesting one in a sense – in theory there is no need for the root user to have a password as it is not intended for direct use, but if the account accidentally becomes enabled then it becomes a dangerous (and easily exploitable) security hole. To be safe, Apple should not only have disabled the root user, but also generated a random password for that account.

The vulnerability can be exploited locally (with access to the keyboard) and in some instances remotely.

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BadRabbit Up And Running

According to reports, a new ransomware infection dubbed “BadRabbit” is spreading in Russia and Ukraine, and one or two other places further afield. Early indications are that this is not going to become a really nasty problem, but that could be wrong.

The infection spreads via one of three methods known :-

  1. Via email promising an update to Adobe Flash player, which is a widely exploited piece of software that has had many updates distributed although not in this way.
  2. By scanning for and exploiting an old vulnerability in Microsoft’s file sharing protocol (“EternalBlue”).
  3. By making use of MiniKatz to break in with compromised credentials.

Of the methods, the last is the most serious as it would allow the infection to spread within the University. But the most likely method to break in from outside the University is the first method.

Once a machine is infected, it will immediately try to spread itself, and infect local files.

In terms of genuine measurements of how bad this problem is, the firewall is blocking incoming traffic to the Microsoft file sharing service, and the sum of each day’s block over the whole of October amounts to about 15-25 million per day. Whilst there is some increase in the last week, there is nothing to indicate that BadRabbit is having a significant effect on the network.

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KRACKing Wireless

The latest big security exploit is a mechanism by which WPA2 secured wireless networks can be compromised to disclose previously encrypted traffic in the clear, and to insert malicious traffic. The original web site announcing the vulnerability can be found here with a translation into more ordinary language here.

Although a serious vulnerability, there are several elements that make this attack somewhat harder to carry out :-

  1. It is a very technical attack that has not been “bundled” into a ready to use form.
  2. The attack involves creating a “fake” access point with the same name as the network under attack. This implies physical proximity, although with wireless networks that can be a great deal further than you imagine – an attacker able to use this vulnerability is quite likely to be more sophisticated than usual, and have access to specialist wireless equipment that can extend the range of wireless networks.
  3. Whilst all WPA2 networks are vulnerable, impersonating a enterprise wireless network is somewhat more complex than impersonating a personal/home wireless network. This means that the EDUROAM wireless network may be somewhat safer than your home network.

Having said that, this vulnerability is harder to fix than usual and is likely to remain around long enough that it will be regularly used. Fixing just the wireless access points isn’t sufficient; it is necessary to fix those and the client devices connecting to the network. And in many cases (IoT devices and/or older Android phones), the client devices will never be fixed.


To prevent this attack there are a number of things you can do yourself :-

  1. Use a VPN. The University runs a VPN service, and any traffic that goes over the VPN is not subject to this attack. To put it another way, if you have the VPN turned on, an attacker can be busy compromising your wireless network as much as she likes, but your traffic will be safe. We recommend the use of a VPN when working whilst travelling anyway.
  2. Upgrade your wireless router’s firmware as soon as possible. We are. If your wireless router is supplied by your ISP, nag your ISP about an update. Otherwise check with the manufacturer for a firmware update.
  3. Upgrade all your client wireless devices – laptops, phones, and all those “IoT” devices that you have.

Bear in mind that advice elsewhere suggests using tethering; if you set up your phone as a mobile wireless hot-spot then you may still be vulnerable if one of the phone or the connecting device has not been updated.

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Patching Your Mouse? Yes, Really!

Strange as it may seem, if you have a certain type of wireless mouse you may be vulnerable to an attacker being able to inject keyboard keystrokes into your computer; with this they are able to do just about anything you can imagine (and a fair bit you cannot) to your computer and use access to your computer to spy on your activities.

Now this attack does require physical proximity. The advertised range of the vulnerable devices is 10m, and an attacker could well be using an external antenna to extend that considerably, so physical proximity is not impossible.

The main vulnerable device are the Logitech family of wireless mice and keyboards – basically anything using the Unify wireless dongle :-

Whilst the problem may have been fixed in the newest devices, it makes sense to assume you are vulnerable with any device purchased any time before 31st March, 2017 (older devices can stick around on shelves a long time).

To fix the problem merely requires a firmware update, but who thinks of checking whether their mouse needs a firmware update? And how frequently?

The firmware update is relatively easily applied, and can be applied with all of the major desktop operating systems – Windows, OSX, and Linux.

Direct Updates (Temporary)

Unfortunately it would appear that Logitech have broken their update mechanisms by re-vamping their websites. As a temporary measure, it is possible to download the update directly:

As a side effect, the update mechanisms below will fail to identify outdated versions. If your firmware version does not end in ‘029’ or ‘030’ (or later), then you need an update.

Updating the Firmware with Windows (and OSX)

The process of updating the firmware with OSX is as similar to updating with Windows, that repeating the instructions with OSX screen shots instead of Windows screen shots would be unnecessarily repetitive.

To start with, you will need to download and install the Logitech software ( Once installed open it :-

Click on the “Advanced” option :-

At this point, click on “Check for updates” to ensure that the software’s idea of what the latest firmware is reflects the latest changes. Then for each of the devices listed in the left hand side (including the “Unifying receiver”), click on the “update firmware” button if it is not greyed out.

Once clicked, the screen will show :-

(Yes I have changed mice)

Simply click “Update”, and you will then be asked to turn off your mouse and turn it back on again.

Repeat this process for all of the entries in the “tree” of devices (including the wireless dongle itself).

Updating the Firmware with Linux

If you just happen to be running Fedora Core 26 (or Ubuntu 17.10), the firmware updates may show up automatically within GNOME Software where the operating system updates also show up :-

If you wish to do this the manual way, you can open up a terminal and running the following commands :-

$ sudo fwupdmgr refresh
$ sudo fwupdmgr update

With the exception of the diversion into geek-land, this is how firmware updates should be managed – one central place to get and apply updates without having to know that your mouse needs a firmware update.

Having said that, only two major manufacturers (Logitech and Dell) have currently signed up to this piece of Linux.

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Think Work, Think VPN

We are encouraging everyone who works remotely to immediately start up a VPN connection (to our VPN of course!) whenever they start working remotely. This is for a variety of reasons, but includes :-

  1. Any on site services that you might need for working are being made available only via the VPN. This includes some on site services that were previously more widely available.
  2. Any site where you might connect to Google service and/or UoP services may be compromised and your traffic would be visible to hackers. Using the VPN means all traffic is encrypted – a hacker will see that you are connecting to a UoP VPN but that is all. Without a VPN, any amount of additional information may be leaked – perhaps WordPress credentials to an official UoP blog site!
  3. By using the UoP VPN, all your traffic goes via our firewall which gives you an additional level of protection against malware that you are unlikely to find on the average cybercafe’s firewall (if they have one at all).

Apart from all those reasons, it is also sensible from a practicable point of view – if you immediately bring up the VPN when working, you won’t be slowed down when you need to use the VPN. Rather than trying to use an internal service, wait for an error to occur, and then remember that you need to use the VPN, it will just work.

The “Work Anywhere” articles for Personal Devices and UoP Laptops will give you directions to the relevant article on setting up the VPN.

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Updating Windows Servers

You might think it is easy to update Windows servers, but apparently that is not always the case. It is easy to simply “check for updates” when you first install a server, and then forget about it.

Which is the wrong thing to do.

The first thing to do is to make sure you are installing updates automatically :-

It may be that your server will eventually become something important enough that it will be sanctioned for manual patching during monthly maintenance windows; even so you should start with automatic patching and switching to manual patching is part of making the server “live”.

You can also alter the maintenance window, but the default option is usually sensible (03:00 nightly).

The next step is to configure Windows Update to check for updates to other Microsoft products which seems to require an Internet connection suitable for web browsing. If you are running a server on a server network (and you should be), then this requires the proxy to be configured :-

The address for the proxy server is “” on port 81 (obviously only if you’re on campus). Once that is configured, you can click on the “Find Out More” link on the Windows Update settings page (this is shown at the bottom). This opens up a web browser that allows you to click on a license acceptance page before changing your server’s settings (and if you’re not somewhat taken aback by a web page being able to change your server settings, you’re not thinking “security first”).

The final step is really a warning about what happens when adding a role and/or features to Windows; there are usually updates to apply after that has happened. Below is a screenshot of the result of running “check for updates” after adding a role to a server :-

Before the new role was added, the same screen showed that it was fully patched!

There is a great deal more to updating Windows servers than this, but this should be sufficient to get started in a less than totally insecure way.

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The Ukranian Ransomware (Petya, NotPetya, WannaCry2)

Those keeping aware of the security scene may well have become aware of the latest ransomware worm hitting around the world. Various names have been associated with this outbreak, and the most readily identifiable name (Petya) is technically incorrect.

This is a classic ransomware infection with the added bonus of the ability to cross-infect machines on the local network using both the vulnerability that WannaCry exploited (“ETERNALBLUE”) and another Windows vulnerability that allows an attacker (or a piece of malware) to execute code on a target computer using compromised account credentials.

Once infected, the ransomware stays hidden whilst it starts encrypting files. This example also forces a reboot after an hour at which point it displays an information page :-

At this point it is too late (especially as the address has been shut down). Paying to decrypt your files is unlikely to be effective (and is unethical).

Now for the good news :-

  • It appears that this spreads through local networks and not via the Internet.
  • It is probable that the initial infection occurs through a compromised update to a piece of Ukrainian tax software.

So in all likelihood, we are relatively safe from this infection.

However ransomware is incredibly disruptive when it performs a cross-infection like this or WannaCry and it seems likely that this kind of incident will be repeated. So we have to expect to be targeted in the future.

Whilst we already have protection in place, and will be looking to increase those protections, there are no guarantees that a widespread ransomware infection will not strike us.

For further information there are numerous sources of information – the first in the list are relatively light in terms of technical content :-

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WannaCrypt or the NHS Worm

As many of you will be aware, the NHS suffered from a mass outbreak of a ransomware worm last Friday which has since spread to many other organisations around the world. For more general information please see The Register’s article which is a good summary and links to more detailed works.

For various technical reasons we may be somewhat better protected than some organisations but it is also possible we may also fall victim to this. To help IS it would be helpful if you were to :-

  1. Be especially wary of unexpected mail attachments. The attack was alleged to have started with an emailed attachment. Even if the attack did not start via email, being wary is still good advice.
  2. Be especially wary of offers of protection. Even if they are from “Microsoft” (they likely are not). Scammers will use this opportunity to drag more money out of their victims.
  3. If you happen to be running an un-managed Windows system, please make sure that it is properly patched as soon as possible. In particular MS17-010 should be installed.
    1. In a small number of cases, managed Windows workstations may still be vulnerable if they have not been turned on and/or rebooted since the patch was released. Such machines should be rebooted as soon as possible.

How It Works

The initial infection will either occur via a malware infected email (once it is read or in some cases previewed), or via a vulnerability in the Windows file-sharing network protocol. There is currently no evidence to show that it started with a malware infected email (which we would normally expect at this stage), but neither is there evidence to show that it did not.

Once infected, the malware will try to encrypt files on all reachable drives and try to infect neighbouring machines using the previously mentioned Windows file-sharing vulnerability.

In circumstances where this vulnerability is very widespread, an entire organisation can be brought down.

The “Kill Switch”

The original malware would not try to infect a host if it successfully made a connection to a certain website address. This was an attempt at making it harder to analyse, but in this case failed.

A security researcher registered the relevant DNS domain so that connections were successful in what turned out to be an attempt to slow down the rate of infection.

However it may very well be the case that later versions of the malware have been released without the “kill switch”.

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