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Meltdown and Spectre Gave Us Another Reminder of Crypto Vulnerabilities

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Meltdown and spectre

The Meltdown and Spectre news in the beginning of 2018 looms over the cryptocurrency world like a big dark cloud. It has been reported that there is a flaw in the design of Intel’s processor chips that makes the system susceptible to hackers. In an article about the bug, The Register reports that this vulnerability lets the unauthorized programs distinguish the “layout or contents of protected kernel memory areas.” This has busied the programmers of companies like Microsoft and Google to create patches for the two exploits – Meltdown and Spectre.

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Breaking down “Meltdown” and “Spectre”

Often computer bugs and viruses make the headlines but this time the flaw is in the design of the Intel processor. Immediate steps were taken to correct the flaws such that the users’ data remain protected within the system (Windows, Linux). The exploits Meltdown and Spectre can be used to access the area where the device stores and protects the passwords. The exploits were brought to light by Google.

The revelation of the bug shook the world as any device that has an Intel chip and connects to the internet can be the target of the hackers.

According to Google, the hackers can “read sensitive information in [a] system’s memory, such as passwords, encryption keys, or sensitive information open in applications”.

Meltdown breaks the isolation between a user application and the operating system while Spectre breaks the isolation between two user applications. The Meltdown attack enables a program to access the device memory (secrets of other programs and the operating system). The Spectre attack, on the other hand, tricks an error-free program to leak its secrets.

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The Impact of Meltdown and Spectre on Security                

Devices that were manufactured and have Intel chips from 1995 (except Intel Itanium and Intel Atom before 2013) to approximately 2011 have high chances of being affected by the two exploits. Whenever a running program works (open a network connection or write to a file), the program hands over the control of the processor temporarily to the kernel. In order to fasten the transition of control from user to kernel and back to the user, the kernel is present in all the virtual memory address spaces of the processor. The kernel’s memory space is not visible to the user processes and programs. The kernel memory houses all the login keys, passwords, files cached and so on. If the system is hacked into due to this flaw, the hacker at the worst scenario will be able to read all the passwords and login keys. This means that they will be able to access all the accounts of the user and collect critical data and account details. The hacker will thus be able to transact money from a person’s bank account by simply giving the login details. Several businesses and institutions using devices manufactured within this period (stated previously) are at risk. Vital project details and company secrets may be leaked out.

The Cure of Meltdown and Spectre

One of the solutions is to randomize the position of the kernel’s code in the memory of the device such that the exploits cannot find the internal gadgets. The hackers would then need to fully compromise the system. The security programmers have already released the first wave of patches to Windows 10, MacOS, Android and Linux. These fixes were speculated to slow down the system. As near about 90% of the devices have Intel chips, one can understand that it will be a large scale backlog. Intel, however, has released a statement the solution will not slow down the computers as much as speculated.

“Contrary to some reports, any performance impacts are workload-dependent, and, for the average computer user, should not be significant and will be mitigated over time.”

Intel recommends the users to regularly check for device updates and immediately install and execute them such that the hackers do not find any opportunity to breach the security.

How Meltdown and Spectre Affect the Cryptocurrency Market

The Meltdown and Spectre news came forward on 3rd January 2018 and on the next day itself the cryptocurrency exchange had to take numerous wallets offline. It is a reminder and warning that how much the cries are that cryptocurrency and blockchain technology is safe; the safety may be simply superficial. The cryptocurrency account holders, therefore, are right to fear the consequences of such an attack. Most of the cryptocurrency exchanges completely rely on the cloud storage system. The cloud computing providers usually save data from different clients on the same server. Theoretically speaking, the attacker can access all the accounts if the server is hacked. After the news, many exchanges like CEX.io, Kucoin and Einstein Exchange had to take the wallets offline. While some of the crypto exchanges are on the way to implement the patch others simply refer to maintenance. The plus side is that the cryptocurrency miners are most likely to remain unaffected.

“An attacker who has knowledge of a sufficiently powerful vulnerability can theoretically force your CPU to reveal secret data such as private keys used to control your Bitcoin.” said Bryan Bishop, Bitcoin Core developer.

The cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology are always portrayed as secure protocols. But they need to save the private keys properly, preferably in a device that does not have access to the internet. Bryan Bishop further says that to become a victim of this attack, all the user has to do is to click on a link by mistake. The link opens up to a website that displays bad ads with a malware code that is more likely going to steal your data.

Other than a miner or a cryptocurrency trader, the threat is also serious for the cryptocurrency exchanges. If a hacker targets a crypto-based business or exchange then, they will get access to millions of account holders at one go. The exchanges are dependent on cloud hosting services and these, in turn, are susceptible to these attacks. Hopefully, the solution of patches will tide over until a better solution is reached that will completely eliminate the risk.

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Important: Never invest (trade with) money you can't afford to comfortably lose. Always do your own research and due diligence before placing a trade. Read our Terms & Conditions here. Trade recommendations and analysis are written by our analysts which might have different opinions. Read my 6 Golden Steps to Financial Freedom here. Best regards, Jonas Borchgrevink.

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4.5 stars on average, based on 9 rated postsHira Saeed is a tech geek girl with a passion to write on latest technology trends. She is the Founder of Tech Geeks community in Pakistan and also runs her copywriting and social media agency, Digital Doers. Follow her on @heerasaeed.




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Should You Use A Robo-Advisor? If So, How Do You Choose?

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Online financial advice is more available than ever, and more investors are taking advantage of these services. Whether or not a robo-advisor is the right choice depends on the complexity of one’s situation and their comfort level in working with advice that is mainly dispensed online, according to Investopedia.

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If an investor’s situation involves complex financial planning issues that extend beyond allocating investments and related services, they might be better served with a more traditional advisor who provides advice in areas such as estate planning.

For millennials and those with more modest portfolios who only require asset allocation advice and basic financial planning help, online advisers could well meet their needs.

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One of the major benefits of online advisors is the convenience and ease of accessing their services. Online advisers are accessible 24/7. With today’s busy schedules, this level of accessibility appeals to many investors.

How To Choose

If an online advisor is the right choice, the next question is how to evaluate and decide which robo-adviser to use.

Just as traditional financial advisers vary in their areas of expertise, how they are compensated and the types of clients they work with, the same differences exist among robo-advisors.

Most robo-advisors offer investment advice and portfolio management, Investopedia noted.

One exception among the major robo-advisors is LearnVest, which gives investment recommendations but not ongoing investment advice. LearnVest’s focus is financial planning and budgeting. The company also offers live help via the telephone.

Asset allocation and portfolio management are most robo-advisors’ dual focuses. They usually provide the service via EFTs and algorithms.

Beyond this basic service, robo-advisors provide tax-loss harvesting services which allow investors to take advantage of any losses in their taxable portfolio.

Robo-Advisors Have Different Strengths

Some robo-advisors focus on specialized areas. Rebalance IRA, for example, focuses on managing retirement accounts. The company also provides human interaction.

Folio Investing provides EFTs or stock portfolios. Motif Investing provides portfolios consisting of 30 stocks for a single price. Personal Capital gives clients the ability to manage their investments on a consolidated basis, focusing on customers with higher net worth.

Fees To Consider

Fees differ among robo-advisors. The fees usually run between 0.15% to 0.5% of the managed assets. Some also charge a one-time set-up fee.

LearnVest charges from $89 to $399 for an initial review and $19 per month thereafter.

Personal Capital charges 0.49% to 0.89% of the invested amount.

In addition to fees, there are also expense ratios of exchange traded funds and mutual funds. There can also be transaction costs for trading investments.

The option of interacting with a human about investments also varies among robo-advisors.

Because robo-advisors are fairly new, they do not have a lot of investment history pre-dating the current stock market rally. It is not known at the present time how well most robo-advisors will perform during the next major stock market downturn.

Established Players Enter The Space

Some traditional financial service players have embraced robo-advisors, which can be a consideration in choosing a robo-advisor. Traditional financial services firms have the funds to invest and the time needed to enable the services to grow. In addition, as a client’s need changes, they will be positioned to transition to the more traditional services these firms offer. Financial advisors working with these platforms could be a way to connect with younger clients and cultivate them as future clients.

Betterment, for instance, has partnered with Fidelity Investments. Fidelity’s institutional platform can provide a version of Betterment’s RIA version to its clients. Fidelity has also signed an agreement with LearnVest.

Vanguard has announced its own robo-advisor and is considering introducing the service to more customers in the near future.

Charles Schwab will introduce a financial advisor version of a robo-advisor that will allow advisors using its platform to white label the service to their clients for free. Charles Schwab will profit on the underlying assets.

Investors need to decide which robo-advisor best meets their needs. They need to consider the specific services the robo-advisors offer, the level of human interaction offered, the minimum investment required and any fees and expenses charged.

The growing interest of major financial service firms in this area is clearly a consideration for both prospective investors and financial advisors.

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Important: Never invest (trade with) money you can't afford to comfortably lose. Always do your own research and due diligence before placing a trade. Read our Terms & Conditions here. Trade recommendations and analysis are written by our analysts which might have different opinions. Read my 6 Golden Steps to Financial Freedom here. Best regards, Jonas Borchgrevink.

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4.8 stars on average, based on 4 rated postsLester Coleman is a veteran business journalist based in the United States. He has covered the payments industry for several years and is available for writing assignments.




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Mazor Robotics: The Next Intuitive Surgical

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Conventional wisdom in choppy markets is to avoid high valuation stocks. The volatility will give you nightmares. If properly prepared, volatility can also give you opportunity.

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In a correction good young companies often see the price of their equity fall more than average. This is what successful investors look for in the overall strategy.  Let me give you an example.

Start with a long time favorite in the healthcare field: Intuitive Surgical (ISRG:NASDAQ).  I ran across ISRG in April 2008.  Wow that was right in the middle of the financial crisis when Bear Stearns was going out: volatile times back then.  

Intuitive Surgical  are the guys that pioneered robotic surgery.  Their Di Vinci surgical suite specializes in procedures like prostatectomies and hysterectomies.  

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From a patient perspective, Di Vinci offered faster, less invasive and quicker recovery times than conventional surgery.  For physicians it meant being able to offer a better service and a happier customer.  For Intuitive Surgical it meant big upfront revenues on the sale of the equipment and even more continuous income from sale of disposable products consumed during the surgery.  A true win win situation.

Back in 2008 when I discovered ISRG it was selling at nearly 100 times a token level of earnings.  The total market cap was somewhere around $500 million.  To rich for my blood at the time.  After all, it was the middle of the financial crisis.  Not a time to take chances.

Today Intuitive Surgical is worth just over $45 billion.  They are far and away the leader in robotic surgery.  The lesson: if there is a long term investment thesis, even a major financial crisis is a short term hurdle.

Along Comes Mazor Robotics For Spinal Surgery

Mazor Robotics (MZOR:NASDAQ) created the Renaissance Robotic Surgical System.   This dramatically simplifies the very nature of spinal surgery.  The system is 98%-99% accurate, reduces complications by more than two-thirds and reduces exposure to harmful radiation by 35%-50%.  Finally, it reduces recovery time and that makes for happy patients.  When it comes to alleviating back pain a satisfied customer is a walking endorsement for the Renaissance System.

Promising Agreement with Medtronic

The fun got started back in 2016 when Mazor signed a marketing and distribution agreement with Medtronic (MDT:NYSE) that represented a breakthrough for the Renaissance System.  Mazor is an Israeli company strong on technology but weak in global distribution.

The selling and distribution of surgical suites like Renaissance is long and involves entire project teams of medical experts and IT professionals to train hospital physicians and their surgical teams.  Once trained, it practically takes an Act of Congress to force doctors to change their habits.  So the long selling cycle tends to lead to long-term customer relationships.

How Mazor Makes Money

The company makes money from three sources.  The Renaissance Surgical suite sells for about $850,000.  With the sale, Mazor offers maintenance and service under contracts.  This is like annuity income that is highly profitable.  Disposables at a cost of $1,500 per operation are the second most important revenue stream.  The gross profit on these items is over $1,350.

Blade & Razor Business Model

The interesting thing about Mazor’s business model is the disposables business. One only needs to consider the potential 100,000 US procedures and 500,000 worldwide might do for the company. Of course there is a lot of blue sky thinking here.  For example, not every surgical procedure will be appropriate.  Sometime, patient characteristics like obesity etc. preclude the use of various surgical techniques. Also cost and reimbursement issues have to be taken into consideration. Having stated all these caveats the opportunities for Mazor are interesting, so say the least.

Constant Comparisons

Along the way Mazor’s potential will constantly be compared with Intuitive Surgical.

The most recent data shows Da Vinci was used in over 650,000 procedures last year employing 3597 machines.  That works out to one surgery suite for every 180 procedures.  If we use this as a proxy, Mazor will need to sell roundly 2800 Renaissance Systems to service 500,000, and that is just half the global market.

Will Mazor succeed or will something trip them up along the way. On the positive side, it has regulatory approval for use in the United States and most everywhere else in the world. However, the healthcare business is littered with promising companies that flamed out so the risks are there. For all their success, Intuitive Surgical’s path encountered a few bumps.

There are already over 200 systems in place worldwide.  Mazor is starting to catch on. The company expects to report full year 2017 revenues of about $65 million in mid February.  We think near term order backlogs could be a little soft.  If so the stock could be impacted and that is an opportunity to watch for.

Something to remember, Mazor’s current value at about $1.7 billion may sound sizable but Intuitive Surgical is a far more lofty $45+ billion. We are neither doctors nor investment advisors so we won’t give you advice on your aching back or you financial portfolio.  However, we will keep you informed as more information on Mazor becomes available about this technology.

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Important: Never invest (trade with) money you can't afford to comfortably lose. Always do your own research and due diligence before placing a trade. Read our Terms & Conditions here. Trade recommendations and analysis are written by our analysts which might have different opinions. Read my 6 Golden Steps to Financial Freedom here. Best regards, Jonas Borchgrevink.

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4.3 stars on average, based on 21 rated postsJames Waggoner is a veteran Wall Street analyst and hedge fund manager who has spent the past few years researching the fintech possibilities of cryptocurrencies. He has a special passion for writing about the future of crypto.




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What the New Force in Healthcare Means to Ethereum

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Call them the three new amigos of healthcare: Bezos, Buffett and Dimon shook the worlds of technology and healthcare on Jan. 29.  Together they are forming a separate company to do battle with high patient healthcare costs and unacceptable levels of patient satisfaction.  Everybody who read their cryptic announcement is speculating about who will be the winners and losers.  

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My vote is for Ethereum and maybe a few of the healthcare apps that are mounted on the Ethereum platform.  As risky as investing in any cryptocurrencies so far this year, here is why we think Ether holds the least risk in the healthcare reformation.

Healthcare: The Nightmare We All Know

We have all heard the disheartening figures. Healthcare in the United States is a disaster consuming over $3.5 trillion last year.  That is just under 20% of all goods produced in this country.  According to conclusions of the Peter G. Peterson foundation, the US spends more than twice any other nation but the outcomes are often no better.

That medical costs are out of hand is no surprise.  What is shocking is that in spite of things like the Affordable Care Act, costs continue to spiral faster than just about everything else increasing about twice as fast as the overall rate of inflation.

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Healthcare costs dwarf even the mammoth Defense budget at less than 4% of GDP.

Working Against The Odds

So far the efforts of Washington to make changes in the system have failed.  That is why the recent joint announcement by heavy hitters, Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett and Jamie Dimon is interesting.  Among their three companies: Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JP Morgan Chase, there are nearly a million employees.  The plan is for top executives from each to form a new healthcare company using technology to improve patient outcomes while reducing costs.

You can bet any investment benefits will accrue first and foremost to company employees of the three amigos.  And of course, there is no guarantee  any real benefits.  But success could create opportunities that go beyond our ability to visualize.

As noble as the announcement sounded, very little detail is available and all parties in the new venture caution against expecting a quick fix.  That did not stop a selling wave in the leading healthcare insurers. This can only be interpreted as respect for the creative accomplishments of these three corporate leaders.

Ethereum Could Have A Quick Impact

It would be wise to view any new plan to need a development window of five or even ten years to be judged on its own merits and the challenges to success are formidable.  However the power of these three executives combined with some of the most obvious flaws in the current system, make the solution an attractive proposition for Ethereum and its smart contracts. Here is why.

Ethereum is not a solution to healthcare, it merely provides the plumbing for others.  That translates into potential demand that could develop even at the earliest stages. And then there are all those apps already using the Ethereum platform.

The Advantages of All Those Apps

The present practice of patient record keeping is part of the healthcare disaster.  For a long time patient privacy issues have encouraged medical records to be “siloed” in many different locations.  Blockchain technology offers a compelling solution to consolidating patient records without loss of privacy.  This is what Ethereum is all about.

The open source nature of the Ethereum platform offers a field day for virtually any medical app that could supplement the new company. That means more demand for Ether that drives the Ethereum platform.

Celebrity Endorsement

One line of thinking that makes sense is that major corporate backing of technology will bring much deserved awareness to the numerous startup companies whose apps provide solutions like video consultations with doctors that save time and cost.  Apps with smart contracts hold the potential to speed medical reimbursement.  

Federal and state governments that play a central role in reimbursements are ill equipped to evaluate new payment systems. But with an endorsement like Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway or JP Morgan, a new paradigm in social media takes place.

And Then Consider The EEA

Founded a year ago, the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance already boasts a membership of about 300 companies of all sizes and that includes JP Morgan.  The EEA mission is to bring together Fortune 500 companies with blockchain industry experts.  In addition to its membership, JP Morgan gained experience with Ethereum through a consortium of  Wall Street trading firms that tested the technology uncovered savings totaling billions.  If you want to become best friends with any corporate CEO start with saving them money.

Fact Or Fantasy

Some readers may look at these possibilities for Ethereum and scoff simply because of the very stubborn problems in controlling healthcare costs.  You can not be blamed if you fall into this camp.  At the same time with the sharp crypto price correction since mid December perhaps you can afford to look beyond the emotion of present day traders.

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Important: Never invest (trade with) money you can't afford to comfortably lose. Always do your own research and due diligence before placing a trade. Read our Terms & Conditions here. Trade recommendations and analysis are written by our analysts which might have different opinions. Read my 6 Golden Steps to Financial Freedom here. Best regards, Jonas Borchgrevink.

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4.3 stars on average, based on 21 rated postsJames Waggoner is a veteran Wall Street analyst and hedge fund manager who has spent the past few years researching the fintech possibilities of cryptocurrencies. He has a special passion for writing about the future of crypto.




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