Modernizing Authentication — What It Takes to Transform Secure Access
As you may already know, WEP security can easily be cracked -- which is why it is a good idea to upgrade to WPA2 (Wi-Fi Protected Access 2).
WEP security only protects your wireless network from average users. Even newbie hackers can download free tools and follow a tutorial to crack your WEP key. This enables them to connect to your Wi-Fi network and possibly access network shares. Plus it gives them the ability to decode real-time traffic on the network.
In contrast, Wi-Fi Protected Access 2 (WPA2), which uses AES/CCMP encryption, is the most secure option available to adequately protect your wireless network. There are two flavors of WPA and WPA2: Personal or Pre-shared Key (PSK) for home use and Enterprise for business use.
The Personal mode is easy to set up and use. You create an encryption passphrase (like a password) on the wireless router and/or access points. Then you must enter the passphrase on your computers and devices in order to connect to the Wi-Fi network.
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The Enterprise mode is much more complex and requires an external server, called a RADIUS server, to enable the required 802.1X authentication. However, this mode should be used by all businesses with employees. You can create usernames and passwords for users to enter when connecting. The actual encryption keys aren't stored on the computers and devices, better protecting your network if they become lost or stolen.
When using the Enterprise mode, access can also be easily revoked for employees leaving the organization. If using the Personal mode, you’d have to change the encryption passphrase (on all the access points and all computers) each time a computer or device becomes lost or stolen and when an employee leaves the organization.
Check Current Security Settings
If you aren't positive of which security method you’re using, you can quickly check in Windows by bringing up the list of available wireless networks.
In Windows XP (with at least Service Pack 2), networks using some type of security will say "Security-enabled wireless network." If WPA or WPA2 is being used, it will be shown in parentheses; otherwise WEP is being used. In Windows Vista and Windows 7, hover over the network on the list to see more details, including the security type.
Verify WPA2 Compatibility
Most Wi-Fi products bought in 2005 or after should support WPA2. If you have a wireless router, access points, computers, or other Wi-Fi devices that were purchased in 2005 or before, you might want to double-check the support of WPA2.
To check a wireless router or access point, enter its IP address into a web browser, login to the control panel, and check the wireless settings.
Note: If you don’t know the IP address of your router, bring up the Wireless Network Connection Status dialog in Windows, click the Details button, and then refer to the Default Gateway. See Figure 1.
Note: If you don’t remember the password, refer to the product manual or search Google for the default password. If you changed it from the default, you can reset it back to factory defaults by holding in the small reset button on the back of the wireless router or access point.
If you don’t see WPA2 in the wireless security settings of your wireless router or access points, support may have been added in firmware updates by the manufacturer. On the control panel, find the system or status details to check the firmware version installed. Then go to the support section of the manufacturer’s website and check the downloads for your particular model. If a newer firmware release is available, download it and upload via the firmware page on the control panel.
If you have any computers with Windows XP, ensure you have Service Pack 3 installed, which adds WPA2 support. Click Start, right-click My Computer, and select Properties. If installed, you should see “Windows XP Service Pack 3”. If you don’t see it, download and install it using Windows Updates.
If you’re using an old wireless adapter, it could lack WPA2 support even if Windows supports it. To double-check its support in Windows XP, open the Wireless Network Connection Properties dialog, select the Wireless Networks tab, and click Add. Then ensure WPA2 is listed in the drop-down menu for Network Authentication. See Figure 2.
If you don’t see WPA2, support may have been added in driver updates by the manufacturer. Check the driver version that’s installed: open the Wireless Network Connection Properties dialog in Windows, click the Configure button, and select the Driver tab. Then go to the support section of the manufacturer’s website and check the downloads for your particular model.
If a newer driver version is available, download it and update it by following the manufacturer’s instructions or via the Driver tab.
Using WPA2-Personal (PSK)
To enable WPA2-Personal security, start by entering the IP address of your wireless router and/or access points into a web browser, login to the control panel, and find the wireless security settings.
If you don’t know the IP address of your router or don’t remember the password, refer to the notes in the previous section.
Once you find the wireless security settings, select WPA2 security and AES encryption. Then enter a Pre-Shared Key or Passphrase of 8 to 63 alphanumeric characters. The longer and more complex the more secure. Try to upper and lower case letters and numbers. Write this down and keep it safe. Don’t forget to save/apply the changes.
Now you must enter the same passphrase on your Wi-Fi equipped computers and devices. In Windows, you should be prompted to enter it when connecting. However, if you were previously using WEP or WPA, Windows may not connect until you edit the saved security settings:
In Windows XP, double-click the wireless network icon in the lower right corner of Windows, click Change the order of preferred networks. Then double-click the network name and change the Network Authentication to WPA2-PSK, Data Encryption to AES, and enter the passphrase twice in the Network Key felids. See Figure 4 for an example.
In Windows Vista and 7, bring up the list of available wireless networks, right-click the network, and select Properties. Then change Security Type to WPA2-Personal, Encryption Type to AES, and enter the passphrase as the Network Security Key. See Figure 5 for an example.
Before you can use WPA2-Enterprise, you must choose and setup a RADIUS server. If you have a Windows Server, you should be able to use the IAS or NPS server. Other RADIUS servers include FreeRADIUS, Elektron, and ClearBox. Keep in mind; some business-class access points (such as theZyXEL ZyAIR G-2000 Plus v2) include integrated RADIUS servers. If you don’t have the money or expertise to run your own server, you can use a hosted service, such as AuthenticateMyWiFi.
For more help on deploying WPA2-Enterprise and 802.1X, refer a previous article of mine that discusses overcoming the common roadblocks. I’ve also written a series targeted toward deployment in small businesses.
Eric Geier is a freelance tech writer and author of many networking and computing books, for brands like For Dummies and Cisco Press. He also founded NoWiresSecurity, which helps businesses quickly and easily protect their Wi-Fi with enterprise-level security. Additionally, he’s a Field Technician for Fast-Teks, an on-site computer services company that has hundreds of locations across the U.S.
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