Farhad and Mike’s Week in Tech: Another Huge Security Flaw

Two security flaws linked to the chips that underpin most of the world’s computers has the even the biggest tech companies worried.

Each Friday, Farhad Manjoo and Mike Isaac, technology reporters at The New York Times, review the week’s news, offering analysis and maybe a joke or two about the most important developments in the tech industry. Want this newsletter in your inbox? Sign up here.

Mike: Happy New Year, Farhad! How was your New Year’s Eve? I ate German food, went to a concert and then went home. It was weird.

Farhad: Everyone in my house was sick except me. So, I took a bunch of selfies. Same as every year.

Mike: An early contender for father of the year, I see! O.K., let’s talk tech.

Mike: So we’re kicking off 2018 with a nightmare, and no, I’m not talking about your expense report. This week brought the emergence of Meltdown and Spectre, two of the worst computer security flaws we’ve ever seen. My understanding is that together, the two problems affect microprocessors in nearly every computer in the world, and they’re not easily fixable via the usual software update.

In a nutshell, this is incredibly bad. Also, I love how every computer security flaw seems to be named after an ‘80s era Jean-Claude Van Damme action flick. Remember Heartbleed?

Farhad: Hey, “Spectre” was James Bond. And apparently there are a handful of movies called “Meltdown,” including a 2014 zombie comedy.

But let’s get back to computer bugs. So as serious as these flaws are, they’re of biggest concern to cloud service providers — that is, companies like Amazon, Microsoft and Google, which let other companies host their data in enormous data centers. As The Verge explains, the bugs in theory allow data to leak from one hosted account to another — basically raising questions about the security of hosting your stuff in the cloud.

Obviously these bugs aren’t going to kill the cloud, but it does point to the concern of centralization online. Now that we have these huge companies running the internet, they’re going to become the biggest targets for attackers.

Mike: Yeah. I think the thing that worries me here is that a software patch to fix Meltdown could result in slowing your computer down by as much as 30 percent, which is nuts! Can you imagine how long it will take me to tweet insults at you after that?

And as for Spectre, fixing the issue could actually require redesigning how computer chips are built. This whole thing has the big tech companies freaked out, from chip makers like AMD and Intel to software giants like Google and Microsoft. And honestly, they should be. People should probably be more worried about this than they appear to be, but it’s difficult to convey a sense of urgency about complicated technical issues when the president of the United States is tweeting about the possibility of nuclear war.

Mike: And that might not even be the weirdest thing on the internet this week. Social media superstar Logan Paul stepped in it big time, posting a video of himself stumbling upon a person who had killed themselves in Japan’s “Suicide Forest.” His discovery was an accident, but the posting and presentation — he and his entourage treated the whole thing as a kind of a thrilling spectacle — were entirely Mr. Paul’s choices, and they were terrible. The internet rightly flew into an outrage almost immediately after he posted the video to YouTube, and eventually Mr. Paul pulled down the clip and apologized to his fans and the dead man’s family.

Farhad: Oh, that’s interesting, Mike, but before you go any further let me just ask one small thing: Who? Logan Paul? I’ve never heard of him and I’m certainly not a subscriber to every one of his channels, definitely not.

Mike: Er, O.K. But seriously, the whole thing really sours me on the internet and vlogging culture writ large. To me, it’s a prime example of how social media stars and lifestyle bloggers seem to lose perspective on what’s appropriate to share. When your entire success is based on capturing every moment of your daily life, it might be more difficult to step back and say, “Hey, maybe sharing this would be completely insensitive?”

What’s more worrisome is that this sharing culture seems to be fast becoming normalized and ubiquitous, advanced by the many tools we have at our disposal to put more of ourselves online. Even slayings and suicides have been live streamed. And the ability to attach these things to massive social networks means everyone has a built-in, captive audience.

In short, Black Mirror isn’t so much a satire anymore — it’s basically a reality show.

Farhad: I think this story presents a growing issue for YouTube. If 2017 was the year that everyone noticed the dangers of Facebook — prompting Mark Zuckerberg to announce that he’s spending this year trying to fix the platform — I suspect our attention will now increasingly shift to YouTube.

It’s becoming the world’s biggest platform for information, its influence surpassing even Facebook’s. How YouTube polices itself — how it’s aiming to improve the place, and the backlash its efforts generate — is probably going to be one of the bigger stories of the year, I’d guess.

But that’s too heavy for the new year. I’m going to go watch “Meltdown.”

Mike: Don’t forget to take a selfie with the TV. Ta ta for now!

Farhad Manjoo writes a weekly technology column called State of the Art. Mike Isaac covers Facebook, Uber and Twitter. You can follow them on Twitter here: @fmanjoo and @MikeIsaac

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