Ethical implications of selling routers

I write this while back in Italy at my mother’s. As with many of my peers, visiting the family back in old country means having to do free tech support for them. I loathe that, but for politeness I may oblige.

In this particular case, my neighbour asked me to look at his tablet, because it was showing up scammy ads every time he was visiting the website of University of Venice. I checked, and beside some fake-protection apps (sigh) the tablet looked fine. I told him to avoid using the stock Samsung browser and prefer Chrome or Firefox, but then I realized something else was amiss.

A very brief check on his home router found that the problem was clearly with that one: the admin password was the default of admin, the router admin page is accessible from the WAN interface (that is, to the whole Internet) and indeed the DNS servers were hijacked. Stop-gap solution was changing the default admin password, and setting Google Public DNS as the new server in DHCP.

Unfortunately the proper solution (disabling remote access to the admin interface) is not viable for this router, because this router model (TP-Link TD-W8961N v2) does not have a firmware update to fix the absurd ACL system that should lock you up from the outside, and that doesn’t, really. Indeed, the firmware that is installed on the device looks newer than the one on TP-Link’s website, but that’s just because it’s the Italian localized version.

Note: make sure you change the default password of your router even if remote access is disabled! While I used not to care and keep admin:admin/admin:password pairs, it’s getting way too easy to hijack browsers and sidestep the remote access limitations.

Up to here it would be your usual tale of people who don’t (and really shouldn’t need to) have a clue about security being caught on the crossfire. Things changed when he told me that he brought the router to service to the store he bought it from, because he needed to enable port forwarding for some videogame (didn’t say which ones.) Which means a store sold this insecure device, serviced it, and left the customer in a horribly insecure state.

Unfortunately there is really not much I can do about that store. Even though I could leave a negative review to it, I doubt anybody would be checking those reviews over here. And because they are friendly my neighbour is unlikely to stop going to that store, even though I advised against him. He was also sure he found a good deal with this router — it was available online for €55 but they sold it for just €29 — but I have a hunch that the online version would have been the same model in V3 form (which includes a firmware to fix the vulnerability above), while the store sold their previous stock of V2.

This goes again to my previous point that technologists have a responsibility towards their users, whether they are geeks or not. I think OpenWrt was a very good starting point for this, unfortunately for what I see the project stagnated and instead a number of commercial projects around it flourished, which only help to a point. Also, while OpenWrt works great if you need a “pure router”, it becomes vastly useless the moment when you live in a country like Italy, where most of the broadband still arrives in form of DSL, and you then need to look for a modem/router.

FSFE boasts a campaign to let you use whichever router you want but, beside being a very local campaign (compulsory routers were never a thing in Italy, for instance, and as far as I can tell, their campaign only focused on the German market), it also opens the possibility that users will choose cheaper, significantly less secure devices because they don’t care or more properly because they don’t realize how bad that is for them and Internet as we know it.

Some time ago, someone on the Italian parliament (I completely forgot who and I don’t care about it right now) proposed a law for which you would have to have a license to be able to install customer-premises equipment — most of the free software people have been against this proposal, including me. But I sometimes wonder if it made sense, to a point. Unfortunately I doubt acquiring that license would provide you the ethics necessary for this kind of job.

I don’t have easy solutions, but I do think we should be thinking about them. We need devices that are actually secure by default, and where the user has to try to make them insecure. We need ways to reuse devices without having to spend more money for them to be replaced, and after-market ROMs or WRT-style firmwares are that, except, because of targets, too many of those don’t apply to the people who need them the most.

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