Rich Warren: Don't lose sleep over new security scare

Rich Warren: Don't lose sleep over new security scare

Remember Y2K? All of our computer systems would stumble at midnight Jan. 1, 2000. A programming shortcut of using two digits rather than four digits for the year promised to end civilization as we knew it. Yawn. Midnight chimed and life went on. Admittedly, much mitigation was done prior to the appointed hour, but to this day, experts disagree about the severity of the problem. Some claim it was much ado about nothing.

Flash forward to last month and the revelation of the Meltdown and Spectre security flaws in most Intel CPUs and various chips from some of its competitors. Unlike easily fixed software vulnerabilities frequently found in operating systems, such as Windows, hardware flaws present a formidable problem. A software patch only moderates, not eliminates the chip vulnerability.

Intel's response to Meltdown and Spectre leaves much to be desired. Basically, short of replacing millions of microprocessors, there's not much to be done. However, this current security debacle resonates with Y2K hysteria.

Unless you happen to run a server or administer cloud services for vast computer networks, the dangers from Meltdown and Spectre may never affect you. The nefarious ghouls, who prowl the globe looking for ways to steal information, damage or destroy computers, and blackmail users, may never use Meltdown or Spectre to attack your home or small business computer. You are at far greater risk from already circulating scores of malware and ransomware.

To their credit, Microsoft, Apple and Google immediately responded with patches that reduce the vulnerabilities caused by Meltdown and Spectre. Unfortunately, these patches bypass certain circuits of your microprocessor that enhance the performance of your computer. Thus, the press wails and moans about computer slowdowns with reduced performance.

While these patches might slow your computer, you may never notice the degradation. Unless you heavily use Photoshop, edit videos or work with massive spreadsheets, your computer will seem as fast as ever. Email, word processing, surfing the web and dozens of other daily tasks will function just like they did before the software patches for Meltdown and Spectre.

Discovering and addressing security flaws benefits the cyber ecosystem, but it gives the media plenty of fodder for giant headlines and fear-inducing copy. Then again, considering the political climate in this country, maybe some headlines that don't mention government offer relief.

Rather than worry about Meltdown and Spectre, continue to practice your own cyber hygiene and computer security. It's the equivalent of avoiding the flu by frequently washing your hands and avoiding congregating with people who may be ill.

Don't click on links unless you are positively, absolutely certain they come from a known, secure source. Don't visit websites with which you are unfamiliar and that may seem too good to be true. Install and run basic anti-virus/anti-malware software. The free versions of most major computer security programs offer as much protection as the $30-a-year versions, but without the frills. Consider this similar to getting a flu shot. Being vaccinated may not absolutely prevent contracting the flu, but it definitely reduces the likelihood.

Be wary of plugging in any non-factory sealed USB thumbdrives unless you fully trust their source and immediately run a virus/malware scan of them. Always be sure you set your operating system to not automatically run software from USB drives.

Whether running a desktop, tablet or smartphone, allow the operating system provider to update and patch the operating system. Windows requires several monthly patches. Also allow the companies that provide the software you use to update your programs and apps. The Firefox and Chrome browsers update at least once a month.

The average Android smartphone apps require regular updates. Each week, at least a dozen of my 50 apps require an update. Most of these merely fix minor glitches and/or enhance performance, but some improve security. So don't lose sleep over Meltdown and Spectre.

Rich Warren, who lives in the Champaign area, is a longtime reviewer of consumer electronics. Email him at hifiguy@mchsi.com.

Topics (2):Internet, Technology