Some Internet providers have a new offering as part of their package of services.. offering a “free” router/firewall as part of their package. We will call this a “provided” router/firewall for the sake of this discussion. The benefits that are often touted in this provided unit include:
- It will be easier for you, the customer or business owner, to use because it will be managed by the Internet provider.
- It is integrated with the management system of the Internet provider so they can better detect problems or outages.
- And of course why not, it is “free”.
At ESG we have seen this trend increasing since early 2012. As of the writing of this article in 2014, the practice has spread from being something that mostly consumer/home Internet providers offer to being something business-class Internet providers are actively touting.[blockquote quote=”So should you, as a home-office worker or owner of a small business, accept this provided unit or buy your own router/firewall?” align=”none”]
Let’s break down the arguments for the provided unit:
“It will be easier” – Perhaps. There is no doubt that it will be easier to setup because the Internet provider will do that when they show up to put in the connection or “upgrade” your connection. The drawback comes afterward. When you need to make changes to your wireless or firewall ports you will need to contact the Internet provider. This can be as simple as a phone call, or as complex as a multi-day e-mail exchange.
“So they can better detect problems or outages” – This is dubious at best. While it might be possible that they will see your router on their “grid”, they always have been able to see your cable/dsl modem anyway. The addition of the router being one with the modem does not add any particular value aside from giving them more control over what comes in and out of your network. If they were to proactively filter virus packets or malware, that would be helpful.. but they have not made any such claims yet. And on the point of the Internet provider detecting an outage, when have you ever known your cable or Internet provider to call YOU when there is an outage?
“It is free” – Not so much. Likely the cost of the router/firewall is built into your monthly Internet charges. This is why we do not call these “free” router/firewalls, but rather “provided” units. For the conspiracy theorists among us, the future may be that these provided units are paid for by ads that the Internet providers slip into your browsing.
Based on those responses, you can likely guess that we at ESG do not recommend the provided router/firewall units for your business. But what about your home office?[blockquote quote=”Let’s look at this from the point of view of the Internet providers. Why would they be doing this?” align=”none”]
We at ESG believe, based both on industry reporting and discussions we have had with cable company executives, that these provided units could be a gateway for them to both charge you more and tap into your internal data. To be absolutely clear, we have no reason to suspect they (or the government/NSA/et al using the Internet provider as a proxy) would actively spy. However, once in place these provided units can certainly see traffic on BOTH sides of your firewall, and that is never good.
There are people who believe these provided units are a beachhead of sorts in terms of violating your privacy. We might not go that far, but we can see where these provided units present the Internet provider with future earning potential at your expense. This could take the form of the forced advertisements we spoke of earlier. Or that the Internet provider gets paid, for example, by Microsoft to push their Internet content over the content of Google. And even in the more immediate term there are people who firmly that the reason these Internet providers are handing out “free” routers is because they intend to begin charging for every PC connected, and the use of the wireless the router offers up. By you allowing them to put this provided device in your business or home office, you are giving them immense access to data on what you have, what you surf, and how much you use each device (TV, computers, tablets, even smartphones) in your environment on the Internet.
Bottom-line.. if you instead put in place your own router/firewall behind the provided modem (or even behind the “free” router/firewall) you prevent the Internet provider from seeing specific details of your environment, accessing any data on the inside of your network, or probing your specific Internet device usage patterns. The Internet provider will still be able to tell if your connection is up or down, but they will be limited to seeing at a high level where you are going and the raw amount of Internet bandwidth you use. They will only see the one device (your router/firewall) behind their device. And whenever you need changes made you can make them yourself (many modern router/firewalls.. even advanced ones.. are surprising easy to use) or contact us for expert help. It may not stop the Internet provider from trying in the future to force ads at you or get paid to prioritize one media company over another, but at least you will not be giving them the open invitation to do so.