Written by Tomas Foltyn, Security Writer at ESET
How do you secure your network? For the most part, this honor goes to the one device that talks to all of your home’s internet-connected devices: your router. This humble gadget may not store any of your personal data, but with all that traffic flying through it, taking good care of this network workhorse should be a key component of your security culture. And yet, we usually ignore security concerns that have to do with our routers.
In our technology-dependent era, one such little black box is central to any home network (okay, many routers are neither black nor boxes, but we won’t let that distract us, will we?). In fact, chances are your router doubles as a modem, or even the other way round, especially if it was supplied to you by your internet service provider (ISP). Of course, a consumer-grade router typically comes with an in-built wireless access point (WAP), so that we don’t trip over cables. Regardless of your setup, the router is integral to the security of your network.
For all the magic it can do, a typical router is normally forgotten as soon as it begins to fulfil its only obvious purpose – connecting our home to the internet. Devoid of even a speck of glamor and hidden in a corner or on the uppermost shelf, this device quietly does its thing, never attracting your attention unless something goes wrong with your internet connection. Which may prompt the question:
Why care about routers, anyway?
Simply put, a poorly secured router can put all devices on your network at the mercy of attackers. That is no hyperbole. The threats run the gamut, and a hacked router can:
- redirect you to a web page that phishes for your credentials,
- dupe you into installing malware-laced versions of legit software,
- be hijacked to conduct man-in-the-middle attacks (MitM) on what you would believe are secure and encrypted connections,
- be corralled into a botnet in order to launch DDoS attacks against websites or even against aspects of the internet’s infrastructure,
- be co-opted as an on-ramp to attacks at other devices within your network,
- be used to spy on you via Internet-of-Things (IoT) devices,
- be compromised with malware such as VPNFilter, or, as another threat du jour, be misused for covert cryptocurrency mining.
And that is by no means an exhaustive list.
To harden your router and stay safe from hacker shenanigans, you need to access and properly configure the device’s settings. This may seem to be a daunting task, but that may only be due to fear of the unknown. For most, basic remedies are not, by any means, an ordeal, and they’re enough to greatly improve the security of your router.
Your router’s admin settings can usually be accessed wirelessly by typing the router’s IP address into any web browser’s URL bar (the IP address is often 192.168.1.1 or 192.168.0.1, but check the label on your device or look up the address on Google). Arguably, a better way is to connect that long-forgotten thing, probably cloaked in a thick layer of dust, to your laptop via an Ethernet cable and only then type the IP address. In many cases, you can even reach the settings via a dedicated smartphone app.
There are a few sine quibus non – beyond having a firewall turned on, of course – for a hardened router.
Ditch the defaults
Here, we can safely pick up from where we left off last week: Passwords invariably come into play when it comes to keeping your network safe and secure, doubly so when Wi-Fi connections are thrown into the mix. Out of all settings that come pre-configured for you from the manufacturer, the password to access the router’s admin interface is the first thing you should replace with a strong and unique password or passphrase. Also, if possible, pick a non-generic username instead of the default one, which commonly in this case is one of these five options: ‘admin’, ‘administrator’, ‘root’, ‘user’, and no username at all.
Besides reducing cost for the manufacturers, these and some other default configurations are intended to ease set-up and remote troubleshooting. However, the convenience factor is apt to cause trouble in that, for example, the login details are often glaringly obvious and shared across router models, and even entire brands. Indeed, the logins are there for the taking for anybody who can spare a minute searching on Google, or even less than that: suffice it to try one such absurdly easy-to-guess username/password combination (in the vein of ‘admin/password’) and it may very well work on a poorly configured router. In fact, ESET’s test on 12,000 home routers in 2016 found that one in seven such routers used “common default usernames and passwords, as well as some frequently used combinations”.
With routers that permit wireless connectivity (which is the case with pretty much all consumer routers these days), the brand and model may be given away by the default name of your wireless network. Change that name, aka Service Set Identifier (SSID), to something that doesn’t identify you or your location. You can also stop the SSID from being broadcast, but be aware that a snoop with even a modicum of technical chops will be able to sniff it out easily anyway.
Also often enabled by default is a feature called Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS), which was originally intended to help bring new devices onto a network. However, due to a flaw in its implementation that relies on registrar PIN numbers and that makes the number easily crackable, WPS can be easily subverted. Ultimately, this sets the stage for attacks at your wireless password, aka pre-shared key (PSK).
Another feature that is often enabled by default on routers and that poses a significant security risk is Universal Plug and Play (UPnP). Unless you’re sure you need UPnP, which is intended to enable frictionless communication between networked devices but lacks any authentication mechanism, you should turn it off. Indeed, shut down any protocols and block any ports that aren’t needed, as that will reduce the attack surface on your network.
Keep snoopers at bay
When it comes to Wi-Fi passwords (and, thus, controlling who can actually access your wireless network), this is your chance to be creative. You can go up to 63 characters, but, in fairness, that shouldn’t really be necessary. That said, make sure your password or passphrase is long and complex, so that it can withstand brute-force attacks where never-do-wells take countless stabs at a password in a bid to arrive at the right one. Of course, it must also be different from all your other login credentials, including the one you use to access the router’s admin console.
You also need to specify a security protocol for your wireless connection. There’s not much of a choice here, and the only option worth recommending is WPA2, short for ‘Wi-Fi Protected Access 2’. For homes, WPA2’s best flavor is its personal mode (WPA2-Personal aka WPA2-PSK) and underpinned by AES encryption, which is, for all intents and purposes, uncrackable with today’s computing resources. Robust over-the-air encryption scrambles all data as it travels between a Wi-Fi-connected device and a router, ensuring that a snoop cannot simply read it even if they somehow get their hands on the data.
There are two older Wi-Fi security modes that may still be available on your router – WPA’s first iteration, simply called WPA, and the truly ancient Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP). However, there’s no reason to use either of them, especially the easily hackable WEP, as WPA2 has been mandatory on all Wi-Fi Alliance certified hardware since as far back as back 2006.
Of course, some of us are eagerly awaiting the arrival of WPA3-enabled networking hardware on the market. Since this new security standard is set to usher in several major improvements for wireless security, including better defense against password-guessing attacks, it really can’t come soon enough.
At heart, routers are computers, so their operating systems, embedded as firmware, need to be updated for security vulnerabilities. Indeed, routers are notorious for being riddled with security loopholes mainly due to their running outdated firmware, which is commonly because we, the router owners, never install such updates. This makes things so much easier for attackers, as many incursions are facilitated by simple scans for routers with known security holes.
To check if your router’s firmware is up-to-date, navigate to the device’s admin panel. Unless you own a modern router that updates itself automatically or alerts you to new firmware versions, you will need to visit the vendor’s website and check whether an update is available. If it is, well, you’ll know what to do. This is not a one-time task, however, so be sure to check for new updates regularly, at least several times a year.
It’s entirely possible that, because the router’s maker has stopped issuing updates for your device, there may actually be no updates to be installed. This can happen especially with older routers, in which case you’re best off simply buying a newer one.
At any rate, there’s another reward for upgrading your firmware: Beyond updates to fix vulnerabilities, the new firmware version may also include performance improvements and new features, including those that have to do with its security mechanisms.
What else can you do, and with a minimal hassle factor, of course? Here are a few more quick tips:
Any router should enable you to create several networks, which is particularly handy with easily hackable Internet-of-Things (IoT) devices. If your home is ‘smart’, consider quarantining all that IoT tech in a segregated network, so that its vulnerabilities cannot be exploited to access the data on your computer, smartphone, or storage devices. You can also set up a separate network for your children and their gizmos.
Similarly, consider setting up a separate network for guests. That way, you only share your internet connection, not your network, and prevent the risk of malware from their devices jumping over to your digital assets in what is just one possible scenario how a guest can, however unknowingly, compromise your network.
It’s also good to disable remote management for your router to reduce the odds of attackers tampering with it from anywhere in the world, for example by exploiting a vulnerability. That way, physical access to your router will be required to make any changes to its settings.
There is far more to router security than what we touched on in this article. However, even tweaking a few settings in the ‘glue’ that holds all of your internet-enabled devices together will go a long way toward bolstering your overall security. The ‘benign neglect’ with which we usually treat our routers can turn out to be very damaging.
Top 10 Steps to Securing Your New Computer
Written by Phil Muncaster, guest writer at ESET
With Windows 11 making headlines for all the right reasons, it could be a great time to invest in a new PC for the family or the home office. But any new household computing device should come with an attendant safety warning. Hackers will be after your data the minute it’s connected to the internet. And they have numerous ways to get it.
That’s why you need to think about cybersecurity even before plugging your machine in and switching it on. Take time out now to refresh your memory and make cyber-hygiene a number one priority.
What are the main threats to my PC?
As soon as you’re connected to the internet, malicious actors will be looking to steal your data, encrypt and hold your machine ransom, lift financial details, secretly mine for cryptocurrency, and much more. They’ll do so via some tried and true methods, which often rely on cracking, stealing or guessing passwords, or exploiting software vulnerabilities. Top threats include:
Phishing: One of the oldest con tricks in the book. Cybercriminals masquerade as legitimate and trustworthy sources (banks, tech providers, retailers, etc) and try to persuade users into clicking on links and/or open attachments in emails. Doing so will take users to a spoofed site requesting that they fill in personal information (like logins and/or address/financial details) or could trigger a covert malware download.
Drive-by downloads and malicious ads: Sometimes merely visiting an infested website or a site running a malicious ad could trigger a malware download. We may think that well-known sites may be less compromised in this way as they are better resourced and can afford enhanced protection. But there have been plenty of counter-example through the years showing that it’s not always the case. That’s why its essential to invest in security software from a reputable provider and ensure that your browser’s security settings are correct.
Digital skimming: Hackers may also compromise the payment pages of e-commerce sites with malware designed to silently harvest your card data as it is entered. This is difficult to guard against as the issue is with the provider. However, shopping with better-known sites can reduce risk.
Malicious apps and files: Cybercriminals also hide malware inside legitimate-looking applications and downloads. Many of these are posted to online forums, P2P sites, and other third-party platforms. That’s why it makes sense to download only from trusted sources, and to use an effective security software tool to scan for malicious software.
Ten tips to keep your computer safe
Many of the below steps may be taken care of automatically by your PC manufacturer/Microsoft, but it pays to dig a little deeper to make sure all the settings are as secure as you need them to be. Here are our top 10 tips for computer safety:
- Apply automatic updates for the OS and any software running on the PC
- Remove bloatware that often comes with PCs. Check beforehand if you don’t recognize any software to ensure removing it won’t degrade the performance. The fewer pieces of software on the machine, the less opportunity for attackers to exploit bugs in it
- Install multi-layered security software from a reputable third-party vendor and keep it up to date
- Configure backups, and ideally back up a copy of data to a remote storage device kept offline
- Secure the browser by adjusting privacy and security settings and ensuring it is on the latest version
- Switch on and configure your firewall on the OS and home router, ensuring it is protected with a strong password
- Download a multi-factor authentication app in order to help protect your accounts from being hijacked via phishing and other attacks
- Avoid using USBs that you don’t own, in case they are loaded with malware
- Use a password manager to ensure that all your credentials are unique, strong, and hard-to-crack
- Only download apps/files from trusted sources and avoid pirated material, which can often be booby-trapped with malware
It goes without saying that, even by following these best practices, you could still be at risk when browsing online. Always proceed with caution, don’t reply to unsolicited emails/online messages, and ensure device encryption is switched on.
Why You Should Use a VPN While Traveling
According to a survey conducted by NordVPN, 50% of travellers use public Wi-Fi while on the road. However, only 20% of them use a VPN (a virtual private network) to protect themselves while being connected to a public network. “Travelers connect to public Wi-Fi in airports, cafes, parks, and trains. Some even use public computers to print their visa information or flight tickets. A VPN in those cases is crucial if you want to make sure that your vacation will not be ruined by cyber criminals. Nobody wants to lose access to their device or their bank account during a trip to a foreign country,” says Daniel Markuson, a cybersecurity expert at NordVPN.
As International VPN day (August 19th) is just around the corner, Markuson lists all the benefits offered by the service.
Enhanced online security
The main purpose of a VPN is to keep its user’s online connection secure even when they are away from home. Hackers can set up fake hotspots or access unsecured public routers and this way monitor users’ online activity. Once a user is connected, criminals can intercept their internet traffic, infect the device with malware, and steal their victim’s personal information.
When authenticating themselves on public Wi-Fi, users often need to type in their email address or phone number. However, if a user has accidentally connected to a hacker’s hotspot, they could be exposing themselves to real danger.
A VPN hides users’ IP addresses and encrypts their online activity. That means that, even if a user is using a malicious hotspot, the hacker behind it won’t be able to monitor their activity. Therefore, getting a VPN for travelling abroad is essential if you want to stay secure and private online.
Grab the best deals
Depending on the country in which you’re located, the prices for airline tickets, car reservations, and hotels might vary. That’s because businesses know that people in different countries can and will pay higher amounts for certain products and services. If you use a VPN for travel, you can hop between servers in different countries and find the best deals available.
Make the best of additional VPN features
As the industry is evolving, many VPN providers add new features to make their users’ experience even more wholesome. NordVPN, for example, recently added the Meshnet feature that lets travellers connect to other devices directly no matter where in the world they are. This enables users to form a remote connection with their home or office PC from anywhere in the world to share files or for other uses.
However, having said that, please check local laws and regulations about using VPN services on your devices, before you do.
Social Media Data Leaks Account for 41% of All Records Breached
Written by Edward G, Cybersecurity Researcher and Publisher at Atlas VPN
Social media is quickly turning into a primary security weak point. A single data breach within one of the major social media networks can result in millions of records being stolen. Within the past few years, we have seen multiple large-scale data breaches involving companies like Facebook and Twitter. Yet, we rarely see the bigger picture.
Luckily, data presented by Atlas VPN gives insight into the scope of the issue. It turns out that 41% of all compromised records in 2021 originated from social media data leaks, which is a significant upsurge compared to 25% in 2020. The data presented is based on the 2022 ForgeRock Consumer Identity Breach Report, which gathered data from various sources, such as 2021 Identity Theft Resource Center, IBM Ponemon, TechCrunch, Forrester Research, as well as UpGuard, and IdentityForce.
A few other factors make social media a security weak point within the current online landscape. First, criminals can prey on business clients by posing as the company in order to obtain credentials. This is becoming especially prevalent since companies increasingly use social networks to communicate with customers.
Second, fraudsters frequently attempt to infiltrate businesses by leveraging mutual connections, which create a false sense of security. Moreover, people who overshare on social media make it simple for thieves to locate personal information that aids in company breaches.
Besides social networks, another major source of leaked information is the retail sector, which accounted for nearly a quarter of all records breached in 2021. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce Retail Indicator Division, e-commerce sales increased by 50% during the pandemic. Retail data breaches increased in frequency and severity during the same period.
While the average cost of a retail breach was $2.01 million in 2020, it increased by 63% to $3.27 million in 2021. Customer credit card, payment information, and personal data were the principal targets of retail data breaches. E-commerce websites and applications sometimes skip security precautions like two-factor authentication (2-FA) as they seek a simple user experience.
When the enormous volumes of personal data that retail websites collect are not adequately protected, it creates the ideal environment for breaches and subsequent fraud. Finally, the healthcare sector is worth mentioning with only 1% of records, yet, at the same time, the information leaked is usually particularly sensitive.
Data compromised from healthcare institutions tend to include name, address, SSN, date of birth, and, in two-thirds of the breaches, actual medical history information. With this information in hand, cybercriminals can blackmail companies or even particular individuals.
To round up the findings, it’s obvious that retail and social media companies should go the extra mile in securing their customer information. In addition, even though healthcare providers leak only a fraction of the data, they should still safeguard their client data with particular care due to the sensitive nature of the information.
Some services offer data breach monitoring tools. Data breach monitors track any data breaches related to your online accounts. It automatically scans leaked databases and informs you of any past or recent breaches where your personal information was exposed.
As always, we must mention the most effective countermeasure against data leaks. It is advised to enable multi-factor authentication on all of your accounts that offer the functionality. This way, even if your credentials are compromised, threat actors will not be able to access your account unless you lose your phone, and it is also found by ill-meaning individuals, which is less than likely.
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