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Most consumers really don’t understand their router.
And it’s no surprise. Routers and connectivity are some of the most difficult to understand, and jargon-intensive subjects in the technology world. Today we’re going to bring the hammer down on some of these myths and shatter some of the notions you held as truth about routers, connectivity, and security.
Are you ready?
Myth: Nobody Would Want to Hack My Network
There are two recurring myths floating around that detail reasons why a hacker wouldn’t want to attack your home network.
- If hackers attacked my network, it would be a waste of their time. Hackers are out attacking big targets, like celebrities, banks, and credit card companies.
- Smaller networks are harder to hack, so hackers wouldn’t spend the time necessary for such a little reward.
Both are related, and both are most definitely false.
Number one is self-explanatory, but the second myth is actually based on a bit of dated truth. In the past, it was thought that reducing the transmit power on your wireless router reduced “signal spillage” into the areas surrounding your house. The idea was, if a hacker couldn’t find your network from a parking lot, or the curb in front of your house (due to the reduced transmit power), he wouldn’t be able to hack you.
Once, this was at least borderline true. Today it’s not even remotely accurate.
Hackers use high powered antennas capable of picking up just about any connection near their location. Just because you can’t connect to your Wi-Fi from your front lawn, doesn’t mean a hacker can’t make that same connection from a block or more away.
Okay, back to the first myth; it’s not worth a hacker’s time to hack my network for such a little reward. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Vince Steckler, Chief Executive Officer of the uber-popular Antivirus program Avast, had this to say:
“Today’s router security situation is very reminiscent of PCs in the 1990s, with lax attitudes towards security combined with new vulnerabilities being discovered every day creating an easily exploitable environment,” said Vince Steckler, chief executive officer of Avast. “The main difference is people have much more personal information stored on their devices today than they did back then.”
So, while you may think that a few credit cards with a few thousand dollars of unused credit isn’t much, it’s a major win to a hacker. It’s under-the-radar, and most won’t even recognize that they’ve been had until long after the cards have been destroyed or sold.
Additionally, it’s not just your credit card and banking information that’s at risk; today’s hackers can use your network to do even more damage with your personal information, such as stealing information needed to acquire new credit cards, loans, and even rental housing in your name through a process known as social engineering. In essence, they claim to be you and they have enough of your information to make it believable.
Myth: I Don’t Need a Dual/Tri-Band Router
Many think that dual and tri-band routers are for connectivity nerds that are always on the lookout for the next greatest thing in router technology. The truth is, most of us could use at least a dual-band router.
You can find out more about the benefits of dual- and tri-band routers, but the gist of it is as follows: By separating your devices onto multiple bands, you’re essentially widening the network by separating your devices onto their own bands. For example, in my house, we have both of our Smart TVs on one band, the work computers on another, and our “play” items, such as the Kindle, iPads, iPhones, etc. on the third.
Separating our devices leads to fewer slowdowns and greater reliability across our entire network.
Myth: 2.4 GHz/5 GHz is Superior and Your Router Should Remain Connected to This Band At All Times
There’s some truth here, but it’s not that simple. Each band has its strengths and weaknesses. For example, 5 GHz is superior to 2.4 GHz when it comes to avoiding crowded networks that are full of other devices. 2.4 GHz, on the other hand, is superior to 5 GHz when it comes to spanning distance, or penetrating materials like concrete. While both have their place, neither is a sure-fire “must use” band.
If you’re experiencing slow-downs during peak Internet hours, then it’s certainly worth switching to your 5 GHz band. If you’re trying to browse Facebook from Wi-Fi while enjoying some sunbathing next to the pool, 2.4 GHz is probably the better solution. There’s no right answer, and it’s certainly possible (although highly improbable) that the 5 GHz band could be even more crowded than 2.4 GHz in your area. The best band is the one that works best for your particular use.
Myth: Your Router Settings Shouldn’t Be Touched (Assuming it Was Set up By A Professional)
This is probably based out of fear more than anything. I, for one, tell my mother not to touch the settings of anything that I set up for her (because I know I’ll be back in a few days to do it again if she does). Salespeople and ISP-contracted installers probably do the same, but truth be told, you can and should log in and check out your router settings.
I’m not suggesting you go poking around aimlessly, but there are settings you can change right now that could have a huge impact on both the security and connectivity of your home network. Here are just a few of them:
- Switching to a newer standard (if available): If you’re on a newer router, switching from “N” to “AC” can make a huge difference in connection speed, as can switching from older standards, such as “B” or “G” to “N” (some other easy ways to make your router faster).
- Changing the security type: Some routers are left open, or with inferior WEP security. You should always be using WPA2 with AES encryption (and a strong password).
- Changing the default username and password: Every ISP I’ve dealt with in my 33 years on this planet have never failed to leave the username and password as the default after installing new service. This is a huge security flaw, and many websites display this information. Of course, it’s generally for the benefit of the consumer, but that doesn’t mean hackers are ignoring it.
- Disable WPS: WPS or Wi-Fi Protected Setup is usually enabled by default. It’s designed to help people connect their mobile devices without having to remember passwords, but it creates a significant security vulnerability in your network by allowing a hacker to brute-force your network in order to recover the WPS PIN code, which then exposes the WPA/WPA2 pre-shared key.
It’s never a bad idea to log in to your router and explore a little. I wouldn’t go changing things that I wasn’t familiar with, but you’d be amazed at how many customization options exist within the firmware of your current router. Or, if you want to boost or customize your router even further, check out some of these alternative firmware solutions to see if your router is compatible.
Myth: Disabling SSID Hides My Network From Hackers
The thought here is that if you disable your SSID (Service Set IDentifier) – which is really just a fancy name for the display name of your home network – hackers won’t be able to find you. While not appearing amongst a list of your neighbor’s Wi-Fi connections might seem to be safer, but it’s ineffective at best, and outright harmful at worst.
PCs running Windows 7 or later, for example, will still detect the network, they just won’t attach a name to it. Even if you are on an older Windows PC (pre-Windows 7), or using OS X or Linux, unmasking a hidden SSID is a mind-numbingly simple task for anyone even semi-tech oriented. For hackers, it’s downright trivial. Read this to find out other ways to protect your home network.
Disabling the SSID also creates an additional problem. When SSID is enabled, it broadcasts its presence continually. Once disabled, it starts looking for the network it last connected to. A hacker can set up an access point using the SSID of your network (remember, it’s easy to find, even when hidden) that your computer will automatically connect to, without asking you for permission. You’ve just given a hacker access to your network traffic and perhaps more.
Myth: There’s No Need to Upgrade My Router If It’s Still Working
Every few years we see new Wi-Fi standards released (the latest was the AC standard) which improve connectivity and speed of your home network. When speeds started passing 50 Mbps, “N” became a standard that could potentially slow you down (even though its “max” speeds were much higher). If you’re one of the lucky locales with 100+ Mbps speeds available, you won’t get them on anything less than an “AC” router in most cases.
So, while it’s certainly not essential, those that spend money on new mobile devices, laptops, and ever-increasing speeds from their ISP are probably going to be better off upgrading as new standards are released. Or, not waiting too long after.
Myth: WEP Is Safe, As Long As You Only Use it at Home
WEP is never safe.
I’ve written about the benefits of WPA2-AES before, but all you really need to know is that WEP was deprecated years ago, and for good reason. The WEP protocol was never all that secure in the first place, and now, it’s just plain laughable. Experts place it just about the level of security provided by an open network, and currently it’s possible to hack WEP in a matter of minutes… with a smartphone.
Myth: When Using WPA2-AES, My Router Can’t Be Hacked
We’re getting closer to truth, as the AES encryption is theoretically uncrackable. Current estimates place the time needed to crack AES using brute force techniques at a billion, billion years (you read that right).
Now, that’s not to say a hacker can’t access it. While it’s true that the chances are basically zero they could break the encryption in their lifetime, they don’t necessarily need to break the encryption to access your data. You see, AES has one major flaw: it’s dependency on humans to create a strong password.
If you really want to protect yourself from hackers, worry less about AES and more about how to create strong passwords.
Myth: WPA2-AES Slows Down My Connection
Okay, this one is technically true, but you can correct it with a simple upgrade. Modern routers have hardware built to handle the rather robust AES encryption with minimal – if any – slowdown.
If you’re experiencing significant slowing of your Wi-Fi connection, chances are it’s related to using AES on an older router. These older routers were built around slightly different protocols and standards, such as WPA2-TKIP. TKIP was the predecessor to WEP, and while it was more secure, it was actually meant to be a sort of bridge to protect users that were still using WEP while they worked on the newest protocol, WPA2, with AES encryption.
These older routers often required firmware upgrades to make them play nice with the newer AES encryption. Sometimes this resulted in issues related to the change, such as network slowdowns.
Myth: I Don’t Need an Encrypted Connection; I’m Using a Firewall/Anti-virus Software
Firewalls and antivirus programs help to protect you from malicious programs online – or that you’ve downloaded previously – stealing information or providing remote access to your computer while you browse the web. Neither protect your computer as it communicates with the router or access point.
Encryption is designed to protect transmission data being sent and received between your computer and the router. Head over here to find out more about how encryption keeps you safe online.
Both encryption, and a good antivirus software or firewall (or both) are necessary to keep you safe online. If you’re interested in learning more about malware, spyware and viruses, I’ve written about what they are – and how to protect yourself from them – previously.
Are there any router myths you would like to dispel? Which – if any – of these myths did you previously believe? Share them with us in the comments below.