Open Wireless Router project aims for better router security, network performance

The new custom router firmware will allow users to share their wireless networks, but could also improve their router's security

Advocacy group the Electronic Frontier Foundation wants to address the poor security track record of home routers with a new firmware project that will encourage users to share their Internet connection publicly by setting up guest Wi-Fi networks.

The first experimental version of the firmware, called the Open Wireless Router was released Sunday and is mainly aimed at developers and hackers who can assist with finding bugs and improving the software overall.

The project's main goals are focused on allowing router owners to securely set up public Wi-Fi networks for passers-by to use, which the EFF and other organizations argue helps conserve radio spectrum, benefits business and economic development and can spark innovation. However, some of the firmware's other planned features could also improve the overall security of routers that run it, even if their owners don't decide to share their Internet bandwidth with strangers.

"Most or all existing router software is full of XSS [cross-site scripting] and CSRF [cross-site request forgery] vulnerabilities, and we want to change that," the EFF said Sunday in a blog post.

While this is generally true, the XSS and CSRF flaws, which allow attackers to hijack authenticated sessions, are actually among the least critical flaws commonly found in routers.

Over the years security researchers found vulnerabilities in routers that would have given attackers full control over many devices from a large number of manufacturers. The issues found included backdoor-like features and hard-coded credentials, traditional buffer overflows and command injection vulnerabilities in the Web-based administrative interfaces or even implementation errors in third-party components like UPnP libraries.

The overall consensus among security researchers is that from a security perspective the code maturity in the home router world is very poor. Adding to that problem is that few router vendors publish detailed security advisories and that updating the firmware is usually a process that requires manual intervention and technical knowledge from users.

The Open Wireless Router firmware will have an automatic update mechanism that will work over HTTPS and will use digital signatures to prevent upstream tampering with the updates, the EFF said. "Firmware signatures and metadata are fetched via Tor to make targeted update attacks very difficult."

Security researchers also pointed out in the past that many vendors don't have dedicated security programs in place for properly handling the security vulnerabilities reported to them. Giving the EFF's history of working with and supporting security researchers it's likely the organization already knows how to deal with such reports.

Aside from security, the Open Wireless Router firmware promises improved network stability and performance. The firmware "will provide state-of-the-art network queuing, so most users can expect an improved Internet experience -- especially with latency-sensitive applications -- compared to what commonly available consumer grade routers are delivering today," the EFF said.

So far the firmware's "hacker alpha release," as the EFF calls it, can only be installed on one router model -- the Netgear WNDR3800. However, the firmware is based on a custom router software called CeroWrt, which is itself based on OpenWrt, one of the most popular community built router firmware project that supports a wide range of router models from many manufactures.

CeroWrt is also focused on network performance and security. Some of its goals includes proper support for IPv6 (Internet Protocol version 6) and better integration with DNSSEC (Domain Name System Security Extensions).

The EFF will be sponsoring a router hacking contest at the upcoming Defcon 22 security conference in Las Vegas next month together with security consultancy firm Independent Security Evaluators. The contest will reward security researchers for finding and exploiting vulnerabilities in home routers from different manufacturers, including in the Open Wireless Router firmware.

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