How to Secure Your Home Network

Introduction

I’m writing what’s ending up becoming a very long article on Hardware Firewalls. My initial goal was to introduce home users to this type of device and to show how they can be used in the quest for keeping computer networks safe. I wanted to tackle this subject because there isn’t a lot of information out there for home owners yet. But more importantly because there’s an emerging market of devices designed specifically for that purpose. I didn’t really realize however how complicated the topic would become. 

Mainly because this is a new and rapidly expanding range of device types that’s exploding onto the marketplace which are focused upon serving this formerly ignored, but very real need. So the situation is this. With my Hardware Firewall article I’m trying to introduce home users to an already vast array of very new products, while concurrently giving adequate coverage to the many more that are planned to launch in 2017. 

It seems like within this new niche there are almost as many different approaches for addressing this need as there are new devices. The product group as a whole is still too new to have any sort of order. Confusion will dictate until people have had enough time to try them all out and decide which approaches really work the best. So, my firewall article has ended up becoming a huge undertaking…one that I hadn’t anticipated. I’ve been struggling with how to simply represent all the new devices well in written form, much less try to compare and contrast them in an evaluative manner.

While working on that it suddenly dawned on me that people should know how to secure what they already have too. So this post began as yet another section that I was adding to an already far too long and complicated article. Ultimately I realized that this section could and should, stand on it’s own. It’s a separate and important enough topic in its own right and my unfinished firewall article is already way too long!

Websites like Norse and Fire Eye show you computer attacks around the world in real time.

Websites like Norse and Fire Eye show you computer attacks around the world in real time. Go to Fire Eye’s Cyber Threat Map

Why You Should Secure Your Network

Every computer network has one device that acts as the gateway to the internet. That device may connect to other network components that together compose the architecture of your network. Regardless of whether or not that network is large and complicated or it simply consists of one device…it all relies upon one key gateway device. This network serves every internet device within your home or office. Every single device from servers, computers and printers on down to smart light bulbs rely upon this network’s proper functioning. 

If the network is hacked or stops working…then none of these devices will work. If your network is taken over by a Botnet for example, which is something  I speak from personal experience about, then it’s quite possible, and in fact likely that your network won’t always be available for your own use. Sometimes it may work, but other times it won’t. This inconsistent pattern of fluctuating up and downtime is one key indicator of a possible Botnet.

For sure it was our own Botnet experience that led to my becoming slightly obsessed with making sure our own network is always secure. This happened in the early days of networks. Our network had been secured, up until the point when one of our teenagers decided our aging router needed an upgrade. He installed some open source firmware on it (called DD-WRT) which was actually really great but he inadvertently removed the encrypted password needed to access our wifi in the process. He also enabled remote access, and opened a port for port forwarding. He only thought to mention the upgrade to me, keeper of the network, after the fact, although he had run the concept by and garnered the necessary permission from his Dad beforehand. Truth be told neither of us really had a clue about the importance of our router back then…so when he did tell us about it we weren’t really concerned.

Photo credit: portalgda via Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC-SA

How to Recognise a Botnet 

Within a few months time we began having network outages as well as other annoying computer problems which started cropping up on a fairly regular basis. Slowly, over time our problems increased to a point where our network was rarely usable and most of the computers in our home seemed really virus prone and exhibited other aberrant behavior too. Our problems went way beyond the typical ones of the era…things like constant online popups, many spammy emails and occasional virus alerts were just the tip of the iceberg. At it’s worst point we’d watch while our computer’s would wake themselves up or change screens or applications right before our eyes. More and more it seemed like something or someone was controlling our computers much of the time.

If your network begins to exhibit this kind of behavior, it could be due to several factors. One of the network device’s might be malfunctioning, other unauthorized users could be using your network, or it could be that a Botnet has taken it over too. Most Bot Master’s (they are the hacker’s who manage the Botnet) will allow their victims to keep using their devices and their networks because they want to prevent them from growing suspicious which could lead them to take the necessary steps to oust the Botnet. Many more Botnets today are formed without involving computers at all. Their targets are networks with a lot of smart home or IoT (Internet of Things) devices. That kind of Botnet may never really register any obvious signs to their victims, which is one of many factors that makes this type of Botnet more attractive to the hacking community.

What Do Botnets Do?

If you’re wondering what hacker’s use these Botnets for, the short answer is that they are able to combine the ‘computing’ resources of all those small processors into one large, more powerful computing weapon that ultimately is used for the rather mundane activities most business-focused hackers provide as services to their clients. Crimes aimed at the general public which  are things like massive spam email campaigns that send out Trojans or virus-laden emails designed to entrap even more Botnet victims, or phishing campaigns designed to steal and then resell user identities or simply just acquire lots of user credentials for future financial transactions. Crimes aimed at the corporate world are generally designed to harm companies by attacking the computers that they depend upon to run their businesses. 

You’ve probably heard of and wondered what DDoS attacks are. DDoS attacks are the main type of attack Botnets are used for. They are very simple attacks which just rely upon lots of devices sending requests to the same computer at the same time. The sheer volume of the requests overwhelm the computer so much that it can’t do anything else like perform the tasks the business needs it too, to operate. The attacks can end up causing not just huge software problems but also hardware problems. So, while these may sound like confusing, highly technical concepts that are difficult to understand, in fact they are really just pretty ordinary ones that are performed using pretty low level functions. Most IoT devices have cpu’s in them which are tiny, but when they are all combined together they can be quite powerful and easily capable of performing these low level attacks.

Which explains exactly why securing your home router is so effective. It’s just another pretty simple action that can be taken that  ends up keeping your router’s credentials private and under only your control. But the sheer magnitude of protections this offers is well worth the effort. Because it ends up protecting every single device within your network.

In any event, preventing these kinds of malicious attacks from occurring is much, much easier than it is to fix the problems that arise after an attack occurs. That’s why it’s so important to secure your network now. If you’re not convinced yet, take a look at this 6 minute video which does a great job illustrating some of these concepts.

Which Device Needs to Be Secured?

My firewall article will go into much greater detail about device protection…so this post is simply about securing what you already have in place for your network.

In 2017 almost everyone refers to their main network device as a router…but it may actually be a modem too. The difference is that a modem just receives and retransmits the signal whereas a router splits it up too…often into a LAN (wired Ethernet network) and a WAN (a WiFi network.) If it is indeed a router, than the modem (the hardware that receives the signal coming into your home or building and makes it usable for your devices) is built into it. There are other network hardware devices that can also serve these functions too…like the traditional firewall devices I discuss in my longer article, these can also act as a router…so it can get confusing.

Some of the newest network security devices are much more sophisticated routers with built-in security features. And then there’s another new class of routers which provide newer, more complex WiFi networking capabilities like cloud-based mesh ones which give you much faster, less problem-prone WiFi’s capable of handling gigabyte speeds. I don’t think there’s ever been a time in which there was such a vast range of network devices available to home owner’s. Gone are the days of the $75 router…the newer ones can get really pricey…like $600+ for high end versions.

Therefore, to alleviate any confusion I’ll try to to stick to calling the device which is the subject of this post, the network gateway device. It’s the first device in your network, and it’s the one that’s connected directly to your internet service provider’s incoming signal.

It’s what you do to this device that’s the important part…not what you call it…

All network gateway device’s have settings that can be changed. Yet most people know nothing about these settings. Consequently, they never visit that device’s settings to tweak things that could make themselves vulnerable too outside attacks. Rather than my going into long explanations for each tweak, I’m just telling you what needs to be changed. You can Google more information on why if you want to know more about each individual setting.

Since your router or modem is the gateway to your entire network…securing it isn’t just a good idea, it’s mandatory and nonnegotiable. It’s something you MUST do if you want to keep you, your personal data and your devices safe.

Our network

Our network

Because this is so important Homeland Security has created a webpage telling you what things should be secured and why.

Here’s a link to Homeland Security’s great information about securing the device that provides the internet gateway to you network.

Here’s another excellent and very detailed article about the many different ways a modem or router can be made most secure…but it’s also a bit techie.

If you don’t really understand technology and networks very well, I’ve written what I hope will be the most basic steps (for what is really a pretty complex topic) for you to follow to secure your network below.

When Should You Do This?

Um..now? ASAP would make sense, really. But if you’re wondering if you need to do this if you’re renting a modem or router from your isp, the answer is YES! It’s your network! Don’t think twice…they expect that you will do this!

Who Shouldn’t Do This?

No one! Everyone who has a network…literally everyone…needs to do this!

Unless you’re a kid! Then talk to your parents and help them to do it if they are unsure. But don’t do it all on your own…because one tiny mistake could cause huge problems you had no idea about. Even though your parents don’t know as much as you do about all this tech stuff, trust me when I say, they do possess certain knowledge and skills that you just don’t have yet. So, your combined wisdom should be used if they can’t manage this on their own!

Parents…read my article about how our network was invaded by a Botnet if you want to understand why you should do this with your kid rather than leaving it up to them to do alone!

Steps to take to Secure Your Network Gateway Device

Step 1 to Secure Your Network:

Change the device’s login name and password.
FYI, my router’s login name was: admin & the password was also admin

I changed both so that hacker’s couldn’t get into my gateway device’s settings and essentially take control of it, (which, by the way, is exactly how our network was taken over by a Botnet many years ago.)

Here are 2 links that explain how to login to your router:

Link 1: CNET’s article on defending your outer.

This is the easiest and fastest method. But sometimes it doesn’t work because you can’t figure out what your brand of router is using for its IP address or it’s been changed. If that’s the case, then use the 2nd link’s steps to connect to it.

FYI, oftentimes this is written on a sticker that’s on the bottom or the back side of the device, but if there’s no sticker the 3 most common IP addresses are:

  • 192.168.1.1
  • 192.168.0.1
  • 192.168.100.1

Link 2: If following the steps in Link 1 doesn’t work for you then follow the steps described in this Link 2.

Step 2 to Secure Your Network:

Make sure your wireless network requires a password to join it and that the password uses strong encryption. Currently the best encryption for this is WPA2 Personal.

Here’s a link to linksys showing how to do this on many of their routers, but the Homeland Security site above also gives good advice for this.

Step 3 to Secure Your Network:

Disable any features you’re not using which make your router vulnerable to outside attacks.

Disable all of these settings

• Remote access or remote management
• UPnP (Universal Plug and Play)
• WPS (WiFi Protected Setup)
• Telenet
• SSH
• HNAP
• Port forwarding

These should all be turned off.

If you’re unsure about turning any of these off and are worried that doing so might hurt something else that you’re using….then just think about it like this instead.

If you didn’t turn these services on..who did? Some, like UPnP may have been turned on by default by the maker of your device. But if you’re not using those services, you shouldn’t leave secret doors for hackers to use to gain access to your network. Just turn them all off and write down what you changed.

If turning them off causes any unforeseen problems, you can go back and just turn them on again. If you think that this may happen because other people also help in maintaining your network…maybe a spouse, a teen, or your internet provider service people…then write in a note to yourself about exactly what changes you made so it’s easier to change back again…although I highly doubt you’ll need to do that.

Step 4 to Secure Your Network:

Write down the new login name and password and tape it to the bottom of the device. Maybe even include the IP address that worked for you.

While you don’t want this information to get lost…don’t worry too much about it. If it does get lost you can just reset the device, bringing it back to its defaults. In fact, under Step 1 above, the 2nd link step’s tell you exactly how to do that.

Congratulations!

If you’ve successfully made it all the way through this guide…congratulations, you’ve just taken some really huge steps to secure your network! Steps, which the majority of people don’t take because they don’t think they need to or because it’s too confusing and complicated. But really it’s not, if you just know what to do, right?

If you want to learn more about ways to keep your network safe and secure come back to vsatips in about 2-3 days and look for my new Firewall article. Or you can subscribe to receive an email about it too. The subscribe form should be somewhere below thison the bottom right side of the screen.

Comments

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About vsajewel

Hi...I'm the author of 2 main blogs on WordPress.com. vsatips...which is about tech tips for mobile devices like cellphones & tablets. vsatrends, my 2nd blog, is focused more on lifestyle trends...especially those with a strong design element. I also host a YouThe channel which includes aspects of both websites.
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