Spectre and Meltdown risks

Two major flaws in computer chips could leave a huge number of computers and smartphones vulnerable to security concerns, researchers revealed Wednesday.

And a U.S. government-backed body warned that the chips themselves need to be replaced to completely fix the problems.

The flaws could allow an attacker to read sensitive data stored in the memory, like passwords, or look at what tabs someone has open on their computer, researchers found. Daniel Gruss, a researcher from Graz University of Technology who helped identify the flaw, said it may be difficult to execute an attack, but billions of devices were impacted.

Related: Apple says all Macs and iOS devices affected by chip flaws

Called Meltdown and Spectre, the flaws exist in processors, a building block of computers that acts as the brain. Modern processors are designed to perform something called "speculative execution." That means they predict what tasks they will be asked to execute and rapidly access multiple areas of memory at the same time.

That data is supposed to be protected and isolated, but researchers discovered that in some cases, the information can be exposed while the processor queues it up.

Researchers say almost every computing system -- desktops, laptops, smartphones, and cloud servers -- is affected by the Spectre bug. Meltdown appears to be specific to Intel (INTC) chips.

"More specifically, all modern processors capable of keeping many instructions in flight are potentially vulnerable. In particular, we have verified Spectre on Intel, AMD, and ARM processors," the researchers said.

Related: What to do about the Spectre and Meltdown risks

Government agencies issued statements warning users about the vulnerabilities.

The U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team said that while the flaws "could allow an attacker to obtain access to sensitive information," it's not so far aware of anyone doing so.

The agency urged people to read a detailed statement on the vulnerabilities by the Software Engineering Institute, a U.S.-government funded body that researches cybersecurity problems.

The institute said that "fully removing the vulnerability requires replacing vulnerable [processor] hardware."

It later changed its guidance on Thursday to suggest updating software was enough. The institute didn't say why it had made the change and didn't immediately respond to a request for further information.

It said the problems affect technology giants including Apple, Google and Microsoft.

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