Keeping your home router updated is a crucial part of staying secure. Shellshock affected a number of routers, and we’ve also seen routers hacked and turned into botnets. Home router security is notoriously poor.
You should ensure your router is getting security updates, too. Depending on your router, you may have to do this by hand, set up automatic updates — or not do anything at all.
Your Router’s Firmware is an OS, and it’s Particularly At Risk
Your router runs a “firmware,” which is essentially its operating system. Quite a few routers are actually built on top of Linux, and that means security vulnerabilities in the Linux kernel or related software — like the Shellshock bug in the Bash shell — could affect your router. Problems can also occur due to poor router firmware design in general, such as the backdoors that have been discovered in routers produced by Linksys, Netgear, and other massive companies.
Home routers are particularly vulnerable because they’re exposed directly to the Internet. Every other device you own is shielded behind the router, and isn’t publicly addressable. Your router essentially functions as a firewall, shielding your other devices from inbound connections by keeping them all to itself. But, by design, your router is the one point in your home network that’s exposed directly to the Internet. As any attacker could contact your router, it’s crucial your router is secure.
Manufacturers release new versions of the software for your router, just as they do for the software on your computer, phone, tablet, game console, and other devices. Depending on your router, you may have to install these yourself.
How to Install Firmware Updates
To install firmware updates, you’ll need to access your router’s web interface in a web browser. You’ll often be able to find the firmware-updating information under “Firmware Upgrade,” “Software,” “System Update,” “Router Upgrade,” or a similarly named option.
On home routers provided by your Internet service provider, there’s a good chance your router is set to receive automatic firmware updates provided by your ISP. I’ve personally noticed this in every ISP-provided router I’ve ever gotten my hands on. As on my current Comcast Xfinity router, there’s no way to updgrade it yourself. On the positive side, this means your router will update automatically and you won’t need to do anything about this yourself.
Modern routers often offer automatic updates, and you’ll want to leave this option enabled — or enable it if it isn’t already. For example, “Linksys Smart Wi-Fi Routers” offer automatic router firmware updates, which are enabled by default as part of the first-time setup process. Linksys also provides instructions for enabling automatic updates later.
Older routers may just offer a page where you can upload a firmware file, as on this older Netgear router below. You’ll have to check the version of the firmware installed on your router — possibly from a separate “Status” page — and then visit the router manufacturer’s official website, find the “Support” or “Downloads” page for your specific model of router, and check for and download the latest firmware updates manually.
You can speed up the search for your router’s firmware-upgrading options by performing a web search for your specific model of router and “firmware update” to find instructions. But you should get a pretty good idea of what your router requires after browsing through its web interface.
Third-Party Router Firmwares
Third-party router firmwares — like DD-WRT or OpenWrt — are an alternative to your router’s manufacturer-provided firmware. These are essentially an alternative, community-created operating system that will run on your router. They only support certain models of router, so it’s always a good idea to buy a router that supports your favorite custom router firmware if you plan on using it.
We’re not really trying to sell you on installing a custom router firmware here. Most people won’t want to bother with a third-party firmware, as it’s really just for geeks who like hacking and tweaking. However, it’s a good option if you are a geek who likes using that stuff.
If you use a third-party firmware, you’ll still want to install the latest updates for it — so check what your third-party router firmware offers for security updates. This generally just means installing the latest version of the firmware when it’s released, and that often won’t happen automatically. You’ll want to keep tabs on this yourself.
Router security updates aren’t something to panic about, but they are sometime to bear in mind. Ensure your router is automatically updating its firmware, if possible. If it’s not, be sure to check for the occasional update. If your router has years-old firmware updates you haven’t installed yet — as many routers surely do — you’ll want to install the latest one as soon as possible.