Meltdown breaks the most fundamental isolation between user applications and the operating system. This attack allows a program to access the memory, and thus also the secrets, of other programs and the operating system.
If your computer has a vulnerable processor and runs an unpatched operating system, it is not safe to work with sensitive information without the chance of leaking the information. This applies both to personal computers as well as cloud infrastructure.
Processors give the illusion of a sequence of instructions executed one-by-one. However, in order to most efficiently use cpu resources, modern superscalar processors actually begin executing many instructions in parallel. In cases where instructions depend on the result of previous instructions or checks which have not yet completed, execution happens based on guesses about what the outcome will be. If the guess is correct, execution has been sped up. If the guess is incorrect, partially-executed instructions are cancelled and architectural state changes (to registers, memory, and so on) reverted; but the whole process is no slower than if no guess had been made at all. This is sometimes called “speculative execution”.
Unfortunately, although architectural state is rolled back, there are other side effects, such as changes to TLB or cache state, which are not rolled back. These side effects can subsequently be detected by an attacker to determine information about what happened during the speculative execution phase. If an attacker can cause speculative execution to access sensitive memory areas, they may be able to infer what that sensitive memory contained.
There are three primary variants of the issue which differ in the way the speculative execution can be exploited. Variant CVE-2017-5754 relies on the fact that, on impacted microprocessors, during speculative execution of instruction permission faults, exception generation triggered by a faulting access is suppressed until the retirement of the whole instruction block. In a combination with the fact that memory accesses may populate the cache even when the block is being dropped and never committed (executed), an unprivileged local attacker could use this flaw to read privileged (kernel space) memory by conducting targeted cache side-channel attacks. Note: CVE-2017-5754 affects Intel x86-64 microprocessors. AMD x86-64 microprocessors are not affected by this issue.