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The Computer Corner

COMPUTERS

By Charles Miller

Last month, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation released a first-of-its-kind warning to the public, asking everyone in the world to reboot their routers. This action was taken in an effort to mitigate the effects of hundreds of thousands of home routers infected by the VPNFilter malware, which has shadowy links to Russian military intelligence. VPNFilter is an expansive, robust, highly capable, and dangerous infection that spies on users and steals credentials.

At this point, some nontechnical people might be asking themselves, “What’s a router?” A router is a small box almost everyone today has on their home network. This piece of hardware is what allows you to pay for one connection to the Internet, then connect several computers, smart phones, smart TVs, etc to your one Internet connection. Your router routes Internet connections to the proper computer, phone, tablet, or other device on your network.

All communications on the Internet are broken up into packets. When transmitted by Internet, the text on this page of the newspaper could be broken up into dozens of packets. A movie could be broken into hundreds of thousands of packets, but not to worry: even inexpensive routers can effortlessly transmit millions of packets a second.

Routing all those packets to the correct destination requires computing power, so one way to describe a router is to say it is just a baby computer. It does not have a screen or a keyboard, but it really is a computer. Being a computer, it has an operating system (OS), not Windows or Mac OS-X, but a simpler OS called firmware, which is created specifically for the router. Just as surely as your Mac or Windows computer can be infected with a virus or malware, so can a router.

The latest news is that the FBI has seized the command and control system that would have been used by the hackers to control routers they had infected and has locked the hackers out. Supposedly this should give the FBI the ability to see whose routers are infected, then provide some way to share this information with the public. Until then, the advice remains to reboot your router every day, because there is as yet no way to detect whether a router is infected or not, and rebooting the router disrupts the malware.

According to the tech giant Cisco, it estimates that at least a half million routers in 54 countries have been infected by the VPNFilter malware. It also appears that the prime target of the attack was Ukraine. This comes after the 2015 attack “BlackEnergy,” which also targeted Ukraine, shutting down several electric power stations.

The list of home routers that could be infected includes only certain models of Linksys, Netgear, MikroTik, and TP-Link. If you have a router by one of these brands, you should visit the manufacturer’s web site to learn whether or not your model is vulnerable and take the corrective action recommended by the manufacturer.

Charles Miller is a freelance computer consultant, a frequent visitor to San Miguel since 1981, and now practically a full-time resident. He may be contacted at 044 415 101 8528 or email FAQ8 (at) SMAguru.com.

 

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