Wireless Security: WEP, WPA, WPA2 and WPA3 Explained

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Wireless security is the protection of wireless networks, devices and data from unwanted access and breaches. It involves a variety of strategies and practices designed to preserve the confidentiality, integrity and availability of wireless networks and their resources.

Wireless security is critical because these networks are subject to eavesdropping, interception, data theft, denial of services (DoS) assaults, and malware infestations. Without sufficient security measures, unauthorized users can easily gain access to a wireless network, steal sensitive data, and disrupt network operations.

To prevent unwanted access and protect data in transit, wireless connections must be secured with strong authentication procedures, encryption protocols, access control rules, intrusion detection and prevention systems, and other security measures. By securing wireless connections, your organization’s data is protected and you maintain the trust of customers and partners.

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What is Wireless Security?

Wireless security refers to the technology and practices used to safeguard networks from unauthorized access, theft and other hostile actions. Wireless networks broadcast data using radio waves, which can be intercepted by anybody within the network range. As a result, wireless networks are prone to eavesdropping, illegal access and theft. Using security measures such as encryption protocols, access control rules, and authentication procedures prevents unauthorized access and safeguards these wireless networks.

A wireless network can be a cellular network, wireless LAN or other sensor or communications network, but Wi-Fi is the wireless network protocol people are generally most familiar with.

Wireless security protocols such as WEP, WPA, WPA2, and WPA are commonly used to secure wireless networks. The oldest protocol, WEP, is no longer considered secure because of its vulnerability to attack. WPA and WPA2, on the other hand, were released as improved versions of WEP.

WPA2 is the most widely used protocol because it uses the AES encryption technique for improved security. WPA3 is the newest protocol and offers better security features such as stronger encryption, protection against dictionary attacks, and easier setting of IoT devices, but has yet to become widely used.

Whatever your choice, a strong security protocol is critical for securing wireless networks and protecting sensitive data.

How Does Wireless Security Work?

Primary security measures used in wireless networks include encryption, authentication, access control, and intrusion detection and prevention. These measures are intended to prevent unauthorized access, guarantee data is not intercepted, and protect the network’s security and availability.

Encryption is the process of converting data into a code that can be read only by authorized users with the appropriate key. There are different encryption protocols such as WPA2 and WPA3 that are used to secure wireless networks.

Authentication processes validate identities of individuals and devices that attempt to connect to the network. For example, Wi-Fi protected access (WPA) requires users to provide a password or passphrase to gain access to the network.

Access control rules define which people or devices are permitted to connect to the network and what degree or level of access they have. Access control can be configured based on the user’s role, type of device, and level of security required. Most network access control (NAC) solutions support wireless networks in addition to wired ones, and many Wi-Fi routers include access controls like allowlisting or denylisting.

Device security is also an important part of wireless network security. You need to have a reasonable level of trust in the devices connecting to any network, so any policies you can set to require things like antivirus, updated operating systems and VPNs will protect both the network and its users. Limiting use of a device’s administrator account where possible for greater personal, mobile device security.

Intrusion detection and prevention systems monitor the network for suspicious activities and security breaches. These systems can detect and block unauthorized access attempts, malware infections and other wireless security threats.

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Types of Wireless Security Protocols and How they Work

Wireless security protocols encrypt data transmitted over wireless networks to prevent unauthorized access and eavesdropping. They also provide authentication mechanisms to verify the identity of users and devices attempting to access the network. These protocols implement access control rules to determine which users or devices are allowed on the network and what their access level is.

Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) employs a shared key authentication mechanism and the RC4 encryption algorithm to encrypt data. However, this protocol — introduced in 1997 — is outdated and considered insecure because it is easily hackable.

Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) is an improvement of WEP introduced in 2003. It provides stronger security measures like message integrity checks and improved key management. WPA uses the Temporal Key Integrity Protocol (TKIP) encryption algorithm, but is still vulnerable to attacks.

Wi-Fi Protected Access II (WPA2) — introduced in 2004 — remains the most popular wireless security protocol. It uses the Counter Mode Cipher Block Chaining Message Authentication Code Protocol (CCMP) based on the  Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) encryption algorithm for stronger security measures. WPA2 is basically an upgraded version of WPA since it features improved management and is less vulnerable to attacks.

Wi-Fi Protected Access II (WPA3) is the latest wireless security protocol and offers enhanced security features such as stronger encryption, protection against dictionary attacks and individualized data encryption. Announced in 2018 by the Wi-Fi Alliance, WPA3 simplifies the process of configuring devices with little to no display interface — such as IoT devices—  by introducing Wi-Fi Easy Connect. This works by allowing the IoT device to present a QR code or a Near Field Communication (NFC) tag, which the user can scan with their device to establish a secure Wi-Fi connection. Despite advances like stronger encryption and more secure key exchange, WPA3 has yet to gain much traction among users.

How to Protect Your Wi-Fi Network

To ensure the safety and security of your data and other important assets, it is important to take the necessary actions to protect your Wi-Fi network from unauthorized access. By following these specific steps, you can safeguard your network and reduce the risk of security breaches:

  1. Choose a strong and unique password, as it is the first line of defense against unauthorized access to your Wi-Fi network. Ensure that your password is complex, unique, and has a mix of upper and lower case letters, numbers and symbols. Change it often, particularly as employees leave, and use a guest network if possible. Whitelist devices if you want even more restrictive network access.
  2. Update your router firmware from your router’s manufacturer and install them to ensure your router is up to date and secure. This will protect against potential vulnerabilities and attacks.
  3. Enable network encryption by using WPA2 or WPA3, depending on your device’s compatibility, to protect your network traffic. This will prevent anyone from accessing your data and potentially stealing sensitive information.
  4. Disable remote management so that no one can access your router settings from outside of your network. This helps prevent unauthorized changes to your router settings.
  5. Use a firewall on your router and any devices connected to your network to prevent unauthorized access to your network and data. Segment parts of your network that are more sensitive than others.
  6. Back up important data, as there is no better defense against ransomware.

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Bottom Line: Wireless Security

Wireless security is critically important for protecting wireless networks and services from unwanted attacks, breaches and access. Left unprotected, unauthorized users can easily gain access to a wireless network and disrupt operations and steal sensitive data.

To protect wireless networks, you need to have secure and strong authentication procedures, encryption protocols and access control policies. Secure routers, properly configured, are one of the most important wireless security controls, and tools like intrusion detection and prevention systems and firewalls can further boost security.

Wireless security protocols have evolved greatly over the years, and networks using WPA2 or WPA3 are off to a good start toward better security. By using the latest protocols, tools and practices, you can significantly improve the security of your wireless network and protect it from unauthorized access or hacking attempts.

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