Wireless Security

NOTE: This document is by no means complete. However, we felt it complete enough that it could be posted.  We’ll be making more updates as time goes by. 

These days building a wireless network is easy. You go down to the local computer store and purchase a wireless access point or router along with a USB, PCMCIA, or PCI-based wireless adapter. You can even get a package deal when purchasing a new desktop computer or laptop. What’s hard though is making sure your network is secure.

Let’s go ahead and clear the air on security. Security is an ongoing thing. It’s not a “set and forget” type of thing. This article is meant to help you secure your wireless network and give you multiple options for securing it. It is not the end-all-be-all to wireless security and I take no responsibility if your network gets hacked. If it does, it’s probably not some casual observer wanting free access.

Now that we have that out of the way, we can begin discussing your wireless network security.

There are multiple wireless standards out these days — 802.11a, 802.11b, 802.11g, 802.11n, etc. Most home networks are setup as 802.11b or 802.11g networks. These are the ones we’ll concentrate mostly on. Also, when we say “access point”, we are referring not only to a wireless access point (WAP) but to a wireless router as well.

802.11b and WEP

This is the first really common wireless standard for home use. It’s top speed is 11Mbps and it used Wired Equivalent Privacy or WEP, to secure data between your computer and the access point. The only problem is that WEP can be cracked in less than a minute by anyone that can detect your network. However, WEP is better than sending all your information in the clear. If WEP is your only option, we’ll be discussing other methods that can help further secure your information.

802.11g and WPA/WPA2

This is the next standard widely used for home use. It is compatible with 802.11b but provides for higher data transfer at 54Mbps and supports more secure communications with Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) and Wi-Fi Protected Access 2 (WPA2). WPA2 is also known as 802.11i. We’ll discuss it more in a moment.

WPA improves upon WEP and is compatible with older access points. It uses the Temporal Key Integrity Protocol (TKIP) to secure the transmission. TKIP changes the encryption key used for each data transmission. So transmission 1 will have a different encryption key than transmission 2.

WPA2 or 802.11i is the latest standard for securing wireless communications. The main problem is it is quite complex to implement so not every wireless device manufacturer supports it or only supports a small subset of the standard. WPA2 uses the new Advanced Encryption Standard or AES to encrypt data and is more secure than TKIP.

If at all possible, you should use WPA2 to secure your wireless network. If you can’t use that, then use WPA. No matter which one you use, make sure you have a strong password. Make sure you have at least 8 characters using numbers and if possible, special characters like !, @, #, $, %, ^, &, *, (, ). The longer the password the stronger it will be. Some people will say 15-20 characters or more for a good password. I’ll leave it up to you to decide what’s a good password for you.