As this NSA PRISM thing has escalated, starting with the initial public shock, moving on to an intense public debate, then detouring into NSA-is-monitoring-this-Twitter-joke formulaicity and amusing surrealism, it’s grown increasingly clear that this is the news story that keeps on giving. Given how far-reaching the NSA’s counter-terrorism spying program has been shown to be, it’s sort of amazing that Edward Snowden managed to get as much information as he did without being detected.
In fact, a recent WIRED article demonstrates just how sophisticated the NSA can occasionally be in maintaining access to as much online information as possible. According to a secret black-budget document that was leaked to The Washington Post, the NSA has been spying on foreign networks as part of a $652 million-dollar program code-named “Genie”. “Genie” apparently entails hacking into foreign networks, monitoring them, and in some cases, even controlling them.
The WIRED article illustrates that the NSA is less interested in hacking into personal computers and devices – which would yield little more information than one person or family’s activity – and more concerned with hacking into routers and switches, which would allow them to see all traffic going across an entire network. Not only are these routers and switches the fundamental backbone of the internet, they’re also tremendously vulnerable to cyber-attack. Routers systems aren’t updated all that often and this allows a counter-intelligence agency such as the NSA to maintain their surveillance indefinitely. And if you don’t believe us, maybe you’ll believe the chief technology officer at security firm Beyond Trust, Marc Maiffret:
“No one updates their routers…If you think people are bad about patching Windows and Linux (which they are) then they are … horrible about updating their networking gear because it is too critical, and usually they don’t have redundancy to be able to do it properly.”
To be fair, the WIRED article (seriously, go read it) does point out a few things that could be considered heartening, in that they indicate that the US government can actually be pretty effective and technologically savvy when attempting to thwart potential enemies overseas:
“The Stuxnet cyber weapon that was reportedly created by the U.S. and Israel to sabotage centrifuges used in Iran’s uranium enrichment program, used five zero-day exploits to spread itself among systems in Iran, including a rare exploit that attacked the .LNK function in multiple versions of the Windows operating system in order to spread the worm silently via infected USB sticks.”
Still, the NSA’s focus on routers inadvertently brings much needed attention to a serious issue. It’s hard enough to protect your own computer or internet-accessing device without having to worry about the danger that comes with a surveilled network.
What You Can Do About Router & Network Security?
Obviously, we recommend that you make sure to continuously update your router, making sure to plug security holes whenever you have that option. If you’re looking for a router with enhanced firmware and increased security options, FlashRouters has plenty to offer in that department. Our Tomato routers even include the option of receiving notices when a firmware update is ready, a new development in the open-source community, and one we’re happy to bring to you with fantastic routers like the Asus RT-N66U Dark Knight and the Asus RT-N16.
By choosing an open-sourced router, you’re allowing yourself access to the work of a community of master tinkerers devoted to fighting against those who would threaten your online safety. Do not put this off.