Outdated routers putting internet users at risk, claims Which?


Millions of internet users could be at risk of hacking attacks because they are using outdated routers from their broadband providers that have security flaws, a Which? investigation has found. 

Households across the country are using their home broadband more than ever, to work, educate their children or keep in touch with loved ones.

But many are unaware that old equipment provided by internet service providers (ISPs), including EE, Sky, TalkTalk, Virgin Media and Vodafone, could be putting them at risk of hackers spying on what they are browsing online or even directing them to malicious websites used by scammers.

Which? investigated 13 old router models and found more than two-thirds, nine of them, had flaws that would likely see them fail to meet requirements proposed in upcoming government laws to tackle the security of connected devices. The legislation is not yet in force and so the ISPs aren’t currently breaking any laws or regulations.

The consumer watchdog’s lab testing identified a range of issues with the routers. These security risks could potentially affect around 7.5 million people, based on the number of respondents who said they were using these router models in Which?’s nationally representative survey.

Around six million people within this group of users could be using a router that has not been updated since 2018 or earlier. This means the devices have not been receiving security updates which are crucial for defending them against cyber criminals.

The problems uncovered by Which?’s lab tests on the old router models that failed were:

  • Weak default passwords, which in certain circumstances could allow a cybercriminal to hack the router and access it from anywhere;
  • a lack of firmware updates, which are vital for both security and performance;
  • a local network vulnerability issue with the EE Brightbox 2. This could give a hacker full control of the device, and for example allow them to add malware or spyware, although they would have to be on the network already to attack.

The survey also suggested that 2.4 million users haven’t had a router upgrade in the last five years.

Which? is concerned that many customers are being left using old kit, often with no guarantee of an upgrade, and is encouraging consumers in this position to talk to their broadband provider about getting an upgrade.

In contrast to the other ISPs, the old BT and Plusnet routers that Which? tested all passed the security tests – researchers didn’t find password issues, a lack of firmware updates or a local network vulnerability with these devices.

When Which? contacted the ISPs with its findings, most of them said that they monitor for security threats and provide updates if needed. BT Group told Which? that older routers still receive security patches if problems are found – although Which? did find an unfixed vulnerability on the EE (part of the BT Group) Brightbox 2 router.

Aside from Virgin Media, none of the ISPs Which? contacted gave a clear indication of the number of customers using their old routers. Virgin said that it did not recognise or accept the findings of the Which? research and that nine in 10 of its customers are using the latest Hub 3 or Hub 4 routers. However Which? notes that Virgin was counting just paying account holders, whereas Which?’s survey was of anyone using routers within a household.

Which? believes that ISPs should be more upfront about how long routers will receive firmware and security updates – one of the requirements of proposed government laws to tackle unsecure devices – and encourage people to upgrade devices that are at risk.

As part of its proposed legislation to tackle unsecure devices, Which? is also calling for the government to ban default passwords and also prevent manufacturers from allowing consumers to set weak passwords that may be easily guessable and hackable.

The consumer watchdog also believes broadband providers should be ready to respond when security researchers warn them about possible issues – and should make it easy for researchers to contact them. Only Sky, Virgin Media and Vodafone appeared to have dedicated web pages for this.

Consumers with routers that are five years old or more should ask their provider if the device is still supported with security updates and if it is not they should ask for an upgrade.

Says Kate Bevan, Which? Computing editor:

“Given our increased reliance on our internet connections during the pandemic, it is worrying that so many people are still using out-of-date routers that could be exploited by criminals.

“Internet service providers should be much clearer about how many customers are using outdated routers and encourage people to upgrade devices that pose security risks.

“Proposed new government laws to tackle devices with poor security can’t come soon enough – and must be backed by strong enforcement.”

Adds David Emm, Principal Researcher at cybersecurity firm Kaspersky:

“With the number of smart and connected devices in the home today, a breach into a home network could allow hackers to mine for personal data, extort money, and even physically break into your home by shutting down alarm systems and opening doors by wireless access. On top of this, a compromised router could be used by criminals as part of a DDoS (distributed Denial of Service) attack against an online resource or simply to mask the origins of their illegal activity.

“Some manufacturers of routers already ship devices with a unique key – which is something that all manufacturers, regardless of where they are based, should be doing as an elementary security measure. However, until all vendors do this, consumers must get into the habit of changing default passwords immediately, to ensure their router is not open to attack by anyone who knows the default password used by the manufacturer.

“Consumers should also check that devices can be updated, to reduce vulnerabilities that criminals can exploit, and ensure that encryption is enabled on routers. It’s also important that they enable encryption on the device – ideally WPA2 encryption.”

Further details on Which?’s testing:

Weak passwords – devices affected:

  •  TalkTalk HG533
  •  TalkTalk HG523a
  •  TalkTalk HG635
  •  Virgin Media Super Hub 2
  •  Vodafone HHG2500
  •  Sky SR101
  •  Sky SR102

Lack of updates – devices affected:

  • Sky SR101
  • Sky SR102
  • Virgin Media Super Hub
  • Virgin Media Super Hub 2
  • TalkTalk HG523a
  • TalkTalk HG635
  • TalkTalk HG533

Network vulnerabilities – devices affected:

  • EE Brightbox 2

The three routers that passed the security tests:

  • BT Home Hub 3B
  • BT Home Hub 4A
  • BT Home Hub 5B
  • Plusnet Hub Zero 2704N
Chris Price
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