[IMPORTANT] Here's How to Protect Your Router

Category: Security

The old adage says “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” Yet many people do exactly that with all of their expensive “smart” home electronics, and the consequences can be as calamitous as the old proverb implies. The latest cyber attacks are targeting home internet routers. (And yes, you have one.) Here's what you need to know to defend yourself against router attacks...

Yes, Virginia, You Have a Router

I still hear from people who claim they have no router. But unless you're on a super-slow dialup connection, you do. Some say they have just a modem they rent from their Internet Service Provider (ISP). For the record, the “modem” that Comcast and other ISPs talk about is the black box they overcharge you to rent.

That box contains the router which controls traffic on your home network as well as the modem that handles communication with the Internet. So yes, this article is relevant to you, too.

The "basket" I mentioned in the intro is your home’s router, the device that acts as a gateway between the Internet and all the gadgets in your home that use it. When malware compromises your router, it’s as if a fox pried open your basket of precious eggs. Your computer and everything else connected to your home network may be compromised, too. Your internet security software may or may not provide any protection for your router. (See my article Does Security Software Protect Your Router?)

Router Security - are you vulnerable to hackers?

That is one reason to run anti-malware software on each computer attached to your home network even though the router may have a firewall or other security features designed to keep intruders and malware out. If the router’s protection fails, individual devices may save themselves. The performance hit imposed by such redundancy is negligible compared to the potential risk to computers that harbor irreplaceable data. An even greater reason not to rely on your router’s security is that it is almost non-existent, in most cases.

My 2018 article about the router-attacking malware, VPNFilter, illustrates the heightened need for router security that consumers face today and the sorry state of consumer-grade routers’ security. The firmware of most consumer-grade routers was poorly written to begin with, is often left unpatched when vulnerabilities are discovered, and almost certainly will not be supported longer than two years after your particular router make/model was released.

This disgraceful state of affairs is especially true for cheap, no-name, foreign-made routers, (arguably the best-selling category). Yes, “all hardware is foreign-made” these days. But it’s the software that implements security, even so-called “hardware security.” That software will be worth exactly what you pay for it.

Consumer-grade routers are commodities differentiated only by price in the minds of most buyers, who do not grasp the technical mysteries of these boxes that “just sit there blinking.” Consequently, manufacturers shave their costs in every possible way. Software quality and support are sacrificed heavily.

Avast Security's Threat Landscape Report - 2019 Predictions says "The worst is yet to come" concerning router-based attacks. "Avast research shows that 60% of users have never updated their router’s firmware, leaving them potentially vulnerable to fairly simple attacks that exploit firmware vulnerabilities. PC viruses, while still a global threat, have been joined by a multitude of malware categories that deliver more attacks. People are acquiring more and varied types of connected devices so in addition to a laptop and phone, they have a host of smart devices that power everything from their thermostat to their door locks, which in turn increases the attack surface for threats."

Signs Your Router May Have Weak Security

You may have noticed that your router does not automatically update its software; that updates are never trumpeted via the trade press; that it is devilishly difficult to find current router software on manufacturers’ sites, and tricky to install it correctly if you do find the right update. Even basic documentation of the software that ships with a router is often terribly slim and reads as if was run twice through Google Translate. These are all signs that a router maker has skimped on security software and support.

Another sign of weak security is that the only advice you get for improving security is, “Change the default admin password.” That is the first thing you should do with a new router; if it is the last thing you can do, the router still may have no meaningful security.

“Disable remote administration” is another router security recommendation that should be implemented but does not hacker-proof your router. Remote administration allows you, your ISP, and possibly some hacker in Romania the ability to login to the router via the Internet. Hackers have known about “cross-site request forgery (CSRF) ” tricks that get around this safeguard for many years, but some cheap routers still don’t close this hole.

Your ISP may not even allow you to disable remote router administration. After all, it makes their job a lot easier if they have to reconfigure your router. This is a case of “better to ask forgiveness than permission.” Disable remote administration if you can; address any objections from your ISP only if necessary.

If the ISP insists on remote access to a router that it owns and you only rent, ask to have that router configured in “bridge mode,” which effectively makes the ISP’s router irrelevant. Then install your own router between the ISP’s router and the devices on your network. If an ISP won’t accept this compromise, do all you can to change ISPs before resigning yourself to this unfair, unnecessary, and hazardous situation. You have the legal right to use your own equipment on your side of the ISP’s box as long as it doesn’t interfere with anyone else’s service, according to the FCC and well-settled case law.

Protecting the IP addresses of the DNS servers that your router uses to look up Internet sites is another security essential that cheap routers neglect. These DNS server IP addresses are stored in the router’s memory. A badly secured router leaves it vulnerable to “DNS hijacking” in which requests for domain name lookups are misdirected to an attacker’s bogus DNS server, and what you see in your browser’s address bar may not be the site that you think it is.

Consider a “Business-Grade” Router

“Business-grade” routers are another matter in more ways than their prices, which start at roughly $100 higher than consumer routers. Enough businesses have competent IT staff to make router manufacturers spend money on software and security, costs which businesses are willing to pay.

If your home network’s security is worth $100 to $150 amortized over five years, then you should be willing to buy a better router, too. If you are paying for malware protection of individual devices on your home network, a competent router makes that investment more worthwhile; otherwise, you are sacrificing the redundancy that makes security as good as it can be.

What You Can Do For Free

That said, here are some things you can do to configure better security on any router. I cannot provide detailed instructions for your specific router; but in most cases you'll start by connecting to your router via this address: http://192.168.1.1 and providing the admin username and password. If you need help logging into your router, or changing the settings once logged in, contact your ISP or look for instructions online.

Your first task is to change the administrator’s password; this one cannot be repeated often enough. Many routers ship with a default password, or no password at all, leaving them wide open to attack.

Disable remote administration: discussed above. The router should be accessible only via a physical Ethernet cable, or from a specific, fixed IP address of a device designated for the administration of the router (such as the owner’s PC or phone).,

Change the router’s IP address. Hackers typically look for vulnerable routers at a factory-default IP address like 192.168.1.1; if that fails, the attack fails in all but the most sophisticated campaigns. But there is no reason a router can’t have another IP address, and your router’s administration interface should allow you to make such a change.

For example, you could choose 192.168.0.100 as your router’s IP address. Log in to the router’s administrative interface in the usual way, via the default IP address. Navigate to the page that enables changes to the router’s IP address and make your change. Save changes and reboot the router. Henceforth, enter the router’s new IP address in your browser’s address bar to access the router’s admin interface.

Keep router firmware up to date. Automatic updating of router firmware should be as standard as automatic Windows Update on all routers; don’t buy a new router without it. Newer models from Linksys, dubbed “Smart WiFi Routers,” include automatic firmware updates as an option. Google WiFi Routers – the brand name that replaced Google’s OnHub line - also auto-update. Certain Netgear routers can update firmware automatically.

Changing the router’s default password is the first, easy step towards router security you can count on. If you also perform any one of these reinforcements to your router’s security, you will have thwarted a significant portion of other potential attacks. Implement all of these suggestions and your router security can be “business-grade” (or reasonably close) for free.

Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

 
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Most recent comments on "[IMPORTANT] Here's How to Protect Your Router"

Posted by:

Bob K
19 Sep 2019

Where do the routers that use one of the after market firmwares fall for the security issue?


Posted by:

IanG
19 Sep 2019

My router (a NetGear manufacture) has a label underneath it with its own unique (I'm thinking) password on it. The password consists of 8 numbers.

If they are, as I suspect, unique to my router, then surely that password does not need changing?


Posted by:

Dave
19 Sep 2019

Agreed that routers in-use today need to comply with this guidance, but how about conditions when the new 5G service is available? Will it require new modems and/or servers?


Posted by:

Bob K
19 Sep 2019

IanG: I think you would be safe on using that pre-configured password. However, you might want to change it if only to use one you can remember more easily.

Another thought -- anyone with a router that has the WPS feature. Disable it! While it may be a seldom used convenience, many routers are able have the WiFi password cracked by brute-force methods. There are programs out available that will just sit there and try various WPS keys until they hit the right one.


Posted by:

Cho
19 Sep 2019

@IanG..
The "administrator Password" of all Netgears of a particular Model, are the same..
Usually a password of "PASSWORD"....
You appear to be refering to the "WiFi Password" ..

You should change BOTH passwords ..
They are NOT factory unique...


Posted by:

Bob
19 Sep 2019

@IanG, if your WiFi password is an 8 digit code, it's probably an old WEP password, and your router is very old and vulnerable in all sorts of ways, as well as being slow. Get a new router, please.

@Dave, 5G refers to new 5th Generation cellular (cell phone) technology, ia unrelated to the cable, DSL, or fiber Internet routers almost everyone uses in homes and businesses. It's easily confused with 5 GHz WiFi frequency PC's and phones use to connect to Internet routers, but it's totally unrelated.


Posted by:

Jack
19 Sep 2019

So Bob, how about naming/recommending some "Business-grade routers" for home use?

EDITOR'S NOTE: Check out the Asus RT-AC5300 router, Google Wi-Fi, Netgear’s Nighthawk AC1900 family, and models in the Linksys “Smart Wi-Fi” family of routers.


Posted by:

Herb
20 Sep 2019

Ditto to what Jack wrote. I want to get a new router but the more I shop for them the more confused I get.


Posted by:

IanG
20 Sep 2019

@ Bob, Cho and Bob K. Thanks for your comments. Yes, it's a WiFi password (8 numbers) - not a router password per se - on a small label on a card that came with the router which, by the way, is less than a year old. And I made a mistake - it's not NetGear, it's TP-Link. Seeing as it's on a small label (and not printed directly onto the card) makes me think it must be unique to my router. It's a number which I have memorised easily so I don't feel like changing it.

I've never had any security breaches (I live in an isolated rural house) in 16 years of constant computing - apart from one of my email accounts being hacked (from Nigeria!!) when I thought I already had it set up with 2-stage verification, but I hadn't!


Posted by:

Hill
24 Sep 2019

Mikrotik routers are also business class. The basics can be set up easily, and when you see what else you can do to configure them, it's amazing!


Posted by:

ChrisM
25 Sep 2019

Hi. It's all very well saying change this and change that, but my fear is that having made the changes, it will stop working correctly. Hence I am reluctant to apply an update or security change even though I know I should. I would like clear instruction on how to activate the 'UNDO button'.


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