Did you know that other people might be using your router without your permission? A recent report states that, by 2017, one in three home routers will be available to use as a public hotspot to other subscribers of the same internet service provider (ISP).
In fact, you might already be sharing your router with members of the public without even realizing it.
How does this work, why is it allowed, and what does it mean for you? And, most importantly, how do you turn it off? Keep reading!
How Public Hotspots Work
Your Wi-Fi router broadcasts an internet connection around your house, but it probably also broadcasts a little beyond your house depending on your setup. Normally, there’s nothing wrong with this — others who walk by your house may detect your router’s signal but can’t use it without knowing the password.
But if your router is a public hotspot, then other users who have the same ISP as you may be able to bypass the need for a password and use your internet anyway.
To be clear, someone who uses the public hotspot functionality of your router does NOT mean they are on your private network. The hotspot network is completely separate, which also means that it won’t interfere with your speeds in any noticeable way.
If you’ve ever seen the xfinitywifi network while searching for a Wi-Fi network, you’ve seen one of Comcast’s public hotspots (in fact, it’s pretty likely that you can see one right now if you open up your network list). If you’re in Europe, you’ve almost certainly seen the BT, UPC, or Virgin Media public networks.
In order to connect, all you need are your ISP credentials. This allows you to access the internet from anywhere as long as you can find a hotspot nearby.
Security and Privacy Ramifications
For the most part, running a public hotspot for your ISP isn’t a huge concern. Thousands of people are doing it right now, without knowing it, and haven’t had any problems. Since the hotspot network is separate from your private one, there’s no overlap.
That being said, there’s something that feels a little . . . off . . . about all of this, especially because ISPs haven’t done a good job of informing their customers that this is happening.
A research report from early 2016, authored by Juniper Research, concluded:
While most operators now allow consumers to opt-out, if they so wish, most consumers simply have no idea that their routers are being used in this way . . .
Given the current concerns around privacy and data security, the realization that home routers can be accessed by complete strangers is unlikely to be viewed in a positive light.
And while stories of people getting hacked through their public hotspots are uncommon, it is possible. Back in 2014, an Ars Technica author spoofed his phone into giving its credentials to a fake AT&T public hotspot.
Whether or not a hacker could use your public hotspot to launch a drive-by attack is a subject of some disagreement, and chances are definitely low that’s it’s something you need to worry about, but security-conscious users might not be happy about it.
Regardless, you should always secure your home network.
When thinking about whether or not sharing your router with other ISP subscribers is a security or privacy concern, it’s also good to remember that having (essentially) free public Wi-Fi any time you’re near someone else’s router is really, really useful.
Not being able to get on a Wi-Fi network when you need one is frustrating, and it’s not hard to run up against your mobile data cap when you’re traveling. These hotspots can help people in those situations, if you’re feeling helpful.
How to Disable Your Public Hotspot
When you weigh the benefits and drawbacks of having a public hotspot running on your router, it’s not clear which is the winner.
You might prioritize hosting a useful public service, or you might be nervous about the potential privacy implications of having other people’s web traffic routed through your house, minor as they may be. Or maybe you’re just irritated with your ISP for not telling you about it.
So there’s really no right answer here: you can leave it up, or you can take it down. It’s really up to you. If you have an opinion on which is better, we’d love to hear it in the comments!
As for turning it off, the exact method you need to use for your router depends on your ISP, but I’ll try to provide as much useful information here as possible.
The first and easiest way to get rid of the public hotspot is to replace your router. You should be using your own router and modem anyway, mainly to save on expensive rental fees. Hotspots are only possible through ISP-provided gear, so this would solve the problem.
Otherwise, if you have a Comcast-issued router, I’ll show you how to get to the appropriate settings in your Comcast account. First, head to xfinity.com and and click Sign In in the upper-right corner. After you’ve signed in, go to My Account and click the My Services link in the menu.
You’ll need to select your internet service from the following menu and click Manage.
From there’ll you go to a screen that has a number of options related to your internet service. Click on Manage your home hotspot to see if your hotspot is currently turned on, and to turn it off if you’d prefer.
(You can also just go to https://customer.xfinity.com/WifiHotspot to skip to this screen.)
That’s all there is to it! Turning off hotspots from other ISPs is likely to be a similar process. If you know how to turn off the hotspot feature for another provider, please share it in the comments so other people can turn theirs off if they’d like.
Perhaps Not as Bad as It Sounds
Letting people use public Wi-Fi through your router sounds like a privacy, security, and speed nightmare . . . but overall, the stakes and consequences are pretty small.
Still, ISP subscribers should be aware that their router is probably being used as a public hotspot and given the opportunity to do something about it. Now that you know, will you leave yours enabled?
What do you think about broadcasting public Wi-Fi from your router? Did you know this was happening? Will you leave it enabled, or turn it off? Do you use public Wi-Fi from your ISP? Share your thoughts in the comments below!