If early January is any guide, 2020 should be the year when network service providers finally get serious about router security. The year had barely begun when researchers revealed a new critical vulnerability they dubbed “Cable Haunt” that affects hundreds of millions of cable modems.

The Danish team who found the middleware flaw demonstrated how attackers could exploit it to hijack cable traffic, eavesdrop on sensitive data shared online, disable firmware upgrades and much more.

A low-tech attack with a high target range

Cable Haunt is getting attention due to the vast number of affected devices, said to be more than 200 million cable modems in Europe alone that use Broadcom chipsets. Impacted manufacturers include Sagemcom, Netgear, Technicolor and Compal. But the researchers claim the true scale of vulnerable devices may never be known.

It’s also relatively easy for hackers to exploit Cable Haunt with a DNS rebind attack. All they need is to run some malicious JavaScript code in a user’s browser window. This gives access to the local network from which they can reach the middleware and the Spectrum Analyzer, a component in the Broadcom chip that’s used to identify connection or signal problems.

Rapid action to contain the Cable Haunt threat

The good news is that, at the time of writing, there have been no publicly-reported incidents of Cable Haunt being exploited.

Vendors of smart home management and security software have scrambled to update their solutions. Our own solution, Trusted Home, was rapidly enhanced to detect any such exploits. Further urgent work is underway to add protection that would proactively prevent any such malicious attacks.

As a result, many broadband service providers may feel they have dodged the Cable Haunt bullet.

A tipping point for the broadband market?

In the long term though, the impact of Cable Haunt on the whole industry should be extensive, because it reveals the risk homeowners (and service providers) face without suitably-protected routers and gateways.

Many ISPs have been slow to take this topic seriously, preferring to rely on built-in firewalls. They hope to shrug off security incidents by attributing them to out of date software on consumer devices.

But if the attack targets ISP-provided routers, it’s easy to imagine subscribers laying blame for breaches on their broadband supplier.

The future of router security

Service providers must wake up to the reputational damage they face if whole homes become compromised via router-based attack. There’s also the potential support cost: Cable Haunt could easily be used to spread persistent botnet malware. Fixing that kind of attack may require an expensive truck roll to each affected subscriber home.

So, by New Year 2021 we expect to see operators re-evaluating the level of trust they have in the integrity of the routers at their network edge. We believe many will want to lay stronger foundations to properly address this increasingly sophisticated risk.

Ronald Peters | Product Manager, Trusted Home