Is your old router compromising your online security?

The security of the broadband router tucked away behind the sofa is not something that concerns most of us, except when we need to find the wi-fi password. But perhaps it should.

A new router like this D-Link DIR-890L could enhance your security.
A new router like this D-Link DIR-890L could enhance your security.

Your router is the security gateway that protects your home from the big bad world wide web outside. It will probably have been supplied free when you last signed up for a broadband contract, and will have come with a default password to spare you from having to tinker with any of its settings. However, ignorance, in this case, is not bliss.

It’s common practice among internet companies to supply the cheapest routers they can get away with, and to leave them alone until something goes wrong – at which point they will send you another.

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That would be fine if nothing changed in the world around them. But internet fraudsters tend to move more quickly than corporations, and safety protocols can soon be overtaken. The Government has recognised this, and is shortly to introduce new legislation aimed at keeping routers and other smart devices one step ahead of criminals who seek to compromise them.

In the meantime, millions of us are potentially at risk from hacking attacks because our routers are simply out of date. That is the conclusion of the consumer group Which?, whose researchers found security flaws on many of the boxes supplied by EE, Sky, TalkTalk, Virgin Media and Vodafone. Some of these boxes are no longer getting security updates and would fail to meet the requirements of the new laws, Which? says.

Among the vulnerabilities to have been uncovered are compromised passwords which in certain circumstances could allow a cyber criminal to access the router from anywhere; and, in the case of the EE Brightbox 2, a loophole which could allow a hacker on your network to spy on you.

None of these weaknesses means that your router will be rendered illegal, for the “Secure by Design” legislation, which will make automatic security updates compulsory, won’t work retrospectively. Nevertheless, if your box is more than five years old, it would be a good idea to replace it.

You can do this by ringing your internet provider and threatening to take your business elsewhere unless they send you a more up-to-date model. Most will happily do so, as long as you sign up to a new minimum contract – and that’s fine because it may well be cheaper than your existing one.

However, while their latest box should address your security concerns, it will not necessarily improve your connectivity. To do that, you’re better off buying a router of your own. Any model costing £50 or more is likely to be better than the one that came free through your letterbox, and the more you pay, the better the wi-fi coverage is likely to be across your house.

Many retail models also include USB ports, into which you can plug in a portable hard drive stuffed with music and videos, and play them from any device on your network – no configuration needed. Some routers let you control them from an app on your phone, which is far friendlier than the traditional PC interface – perfect if you want to quickly grant wi-fi access to a guest without revealing your password, or restrict someone’s use of certain websites or devices.

If all this seems like a lot of trouble for little result, it probably is; the chances of being hacked through your router are still slim. But if you consider the exponential growth of email and text fraud over the last couple of years, it would be a foolish soul who chose to underestimate the guile of the online criminal fraternity.

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