Routers and home networks

The signal from our routers can be picked up beyond the walls of our homes. There are best practises for minimising the risk of your wireless connection being used by strangers (using strong encryption, a good password and a network name that doesn’t single your home out). But to benefit from these best practises, people have to be aware of them, and use them.

We sketched a service that would give people more confidence when it came to understanding and managing their home network security. We hoped it might help people feel a stronger sense of ownership and safety with their routers.

In this clickable sketch, we alert people to weak security settings and guides them through choosing alternatives. Click “Router” to see these steps.

Nudging towards best practise

We used our Log interface to illustrate a common problem with lots of routers: poor default settings. We used an alert symbol next to the router icon to show that something needs attention. It tells people about the problem and prompts them to do something about it.

As they change the network name and password, contextual information helps steer people into choosing effective alternatives. We’ve also introduced the idea of network encryption, although not in any depth.

This sketch also helped us think about the intelligence a router would need in order to help people like this. CHOICE imagine using the router as a platform, open to apps created by different developers. These apps would need access to sensitive information like router passwords, as well as the ability to change them. This obviously leads to questions about how this information might be accessed. On top of that, the service needs to be able to recognise patterns in passwords that makes Wi-Fi easier to access.

How people responded

Of the three sketches, this was the one we encountered the most difficulty with.

Security matters to people. For many though, this meant “don’t mess with anything”. A few people told us they just use their routers “out of the box”, and believed that anything they did to change preferences or details could make it less secure. A lot of people relied on word of mouth or advice from family to understand if they used the internet safely. That advice would usually be about passwords or protecting their bank details, but not routers.

At the same time, people expressed anxiety that their home Wi-Fi might not be secure. The connection between router and Wi-Fi wasn’t often very clear to people, and this sketch didn’t help with that. “WPA2 encryption” was, rightly, seen as technical jargon. We also heard from some people living in rented homes that things like Wi-Fi are beyond their control.

The big finding though was that passwords provoke a lot of anxiety. People expressed frustration at “having to think up another one”, or remarked that they’d use the same password they use for everything (even though they knew they shouldn’t).

A few people argued that the sketch needed to make the benefits of changing the network settings clearer. While we’d learned not to overwhelm people, like we did in our second sketch, here we needed to give people a bit more information to go on.

Some routers use easy to guess default passwords. This has allowed hackers to take control of millions of devices and launch attacks against internet infrastructure. (Photo: Ian Hutchinson/IF)

Thinking about network hygiene

The issues we addressed in this sketch aren’t limited to routers and Wi-Fi. In October 2016, the Mirai botnet attacked key internet infrastructure, taking advantage of connected devices that either had no password or a weak one. There’s a substantial consumer advocacy piece to be done around making these devices less vulnerable.

But this sketch introduced a lot more anxiety in the people we tested it with than we anticipated. That got us thinking about the initial question differently. If people want to know who else might be using their Wi-Fi, we could instead give them simpler tools for managing that access. That’s something we incorporated into our final prototype for CHOICE.