Meltdown and Spectre hardware bugs: What to know and do | What Is IT?

Your important data—passwords, photos, e-mails and instant messages—are at risk because of a design flaw in Intel's processor chip. The flaw leaves your personal devices vulnerable to attack. Fixing the flaw could result in your system slowing down as much as 30 percent.

The security flaws are called Meltdown and Spectre.

Paul Wagenseil of Tom's Guide said Meltdown is a deeply buried problem that affects virtually every Intel-based computer made in the past 20 years. And Spectre affects every smartphone or tablet out there today.

We're talking billions of devices—computers, smartphones, tablets and even the cloud. It also extends to other technologies that use Intel chips, such as like medical equipment.

The U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team explained that these flaws allow an attacker to access sensitive information. It happens through a back channel long known to security experts.

The difference now is that these same experts have realized how those channels can be exploited. So they alerted Intel, Google, Apple, and Microsoft in the hopes that these tech giants could create a patch before bad actors take advantage of the vulnerability.

The tech giants have been working on these fixes for the better part of a year. All of the patches should be out next week.

The only thing you can do to protect yourself is to update the operating system on your device. And you may need to do that more than once because Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Intel will continue to release new fixes as new information about these flaws emerges.

Three separate class-action lawsuits have been filed by plaintiffs in California, Oregon, and Indiana seeking compensation. All three cite the security vulnerability and Intel's delay in public disclosure.

And this is important to know: security flaws in processor chips are unusual.