WiFi Security: Differences between WEP, WPA, WPA2 , and WPA3

The wireless network technology has undergone quite a number of significant changes and upgrades since its inception in the 1990s.

Thanks to these changes, wireless technology has become much more advanced, reliable, and most importantly, secure.

Speaking of security, it’s impressive how the wireless security protocols that help secure wireless networks have advanced as well.

As the use of wireless networks becomes widespread, so does the security risks that come with this newfound popularity.

Given the numerous loopholes often posed by wireless networks, using a highly secure wireless security protocol for your device/s is a good way to ensure maximum protection from cyber attacks.

Not only do wireless security protocols prevent malicious attackers from accessing your wireless network, but they also encrypt all the data you send and receive while connected to the internet.

Now;

When it comes to protecting your wifi network, using a strong and unique password is only half the way to completely securing your network and your device. Selecting the right level of encryption is just as important.

In this article, we help you better understand the major differences between the 4 main wireless security protocols namely-WEP, WPA, WPA2, and WP3.

WEP (Wireless Equivalent Privacy)

Wireless Equivalent Privacy (WEP) is the oldest and therefore the least secure wifi security protocols.

WEP was approved as a wifi security standard in 1999. The encryption was initially designed to offer the same security level as wired networks.

The main goal for its inception was to prevent malicious attackers from snooping on wireless data during transmission between clients and APs.

However, despite numerous revisions to the security protocol and increased key size, in 2001, cybersecurity experts discovered a number of several flaws in WEP.

One of the largest known attacks due to security flaws in WEP involved TJX Companies Inc. In 2009, the protocol’s numerous vulnerabilities resulted in a massive data breach of the company’s systems.

Right after the cyber attack on TJX, PCI DSS banned retailers and entities from using WEP to process credit card data. The breach also prohibited the use of WEP in consumer devices.

Due to the numerous security concerns posed by WEP, the wireless security protocol was officially abandoned in 2004 by the WiFi Alliance.

So what makes WEP a high-risk security protocol?

Well, WEP uses the RC4 stream cipher for encryption and authentication. Originally, the security standard used a 40-bit pre-shared encryption key.

Later on, a 104-bit pre-shared encryption was made available.

The encryption key must be entered and updated by an administrator manually.

To make the encryption stronger, the pre-shared key is used in combination with a 24-bit initialization vector (IV).

However, due to the small size of the 24-bit IV, the risk of the encryption keys being reused is higher, thus making them easier to crack.

This risk combined with other known vulnerabilities of the WEP wireless security protocol makes it extremely risky and vulnerable.

Any system that uses the WEP security protocol must either be upgraded or replaced in case an upgrade is not entirely possible.

WPA-Wi-Fi Protected Access

Due to the numerous security flaws in WEP, a more secure protocol was needed urgently. In response, the Wi-Fi Alliance started the development of the Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA).

The WPA wireless security protocol was formally adopted in the year 2003. This was just one year after the old WEP was officially abandoned.

WPA was developed as a security enhancement for wireless network connections by adding an additional layer of security.

Perhaps the most common configuration in WPA is the pre-shared keys that use 256-bit, which is an impressive increase from WEP’s 64-bit and 128-bit.

The WPA encryption offers two discreet modes for personal use and for enterprises. The WPA Enterprise mode (WPA-EAP) uses an authentication server for keys, certificates generation, in combination with the Extensible Authentication Protocol.

On the other hand, the WPA personal mode (WPA-PSK) uses preshared keys which allow for simpler implementation and easier management for both consumers and small businesses.

One of the most significant security enhancements in the WPA is the implementation of the Temporal Key Integrity Protocol (TKIP).

To improve the security of your wireless network, TKIP’s implementation in WPA has introduced some significant changes which include;

  • Message integrity checks which help determine whether a malicious attacker has snooped on or altered the data packets that are transferred between wireless access points and the client.
  • Use of higher, stronger, and more secure 256-bit encryption keys
  • Key mixing in each data packet which produces a unique key for each single packet.
  • Has a larger initialization vector (IV)-uses 48-bits compared to WEP’s 28-bits.
  • Has proper mechanisms in place that help reduce the usage of IV.
  • Updated keys are automatically broadcasted.

Although WPA was considered to be a more secure upgrade, the protocol was found to be flawed just like its predecessor, WEP.

Through exploits in TKIP, the core component of WPA, the protocol was no longer considered secure.

You see, TKIP was designed to be rolled out easily through firmware upgrades on all WEP-enabled devices.

However, this meant that certain elements previously used in the WEP system had to be reused, which obviously created security loopholes.

The WPA wireless security protocol had to be abandoned, and this led to the birth of WPA2.

Wi-Fi Protected Access 2 (WPA2)

Although WPA2 is said to have some minor vulnerabilities, it’s still considered as one of the most secure wireless security protocols available.

The security threat posed by WPA2 is pretty minor as it requires an attacker to first break into an already secured Wi-Fi network in order to access specific keys, and then carry out an attack against all the devices connected to the network.

To enhance the security of wireless networks, WPA2 uses two powerful authentication and encryption mechanisms namely Counter Mode with Cipher Block Chaining Message Authentication Code Protocol (CCMP) and Advanced Encryption Standard (AES).

These two replace the previous authentication and encryption mechanisms found in both WEP and WPA; the RC4 Cipher and TKIP.

CCMP provides data privacy by strictly allowing only authorized users in a network to receive data. And by using cipher block chaining message authentication code, this protocol ensures message integrity.

AES was initially developed by the US government to protect sensitive data. The encryption protocol uses a total of 3s symmetric block ciphers.

Each one of these blocks encrypts and decrypts data in blocks of 128 bits using 3 encryption bit keys namely 128-bit, 192-bit, and 256-bit.

These two encryption techniques work together to form a powerful security barrier that makes it hard for attackers to tamper with data packets.

Although WPA2 is pretty safe, secure, and reliable, it does have a major drawback in one of its separate features-WiFi Protected Setup (WPS).

Initially, WPS was designed and developed to make the process of connecting to a wireless network hassle-free by eliminating the need to produce your password unnecessary.

Sadly, numerous flaws have been identified on how this security protocol is implemented, posing a risk of security breaches and attacks.

Given that WPS is still found in WPA2’s access points, it’s highly advisable to disable WPS on your device.

And although gaining access to a WPA2 network using this possible exploit may be a little bit complicated, it still remains a major security concern.

It’s these minor vulnerabilities in WPA2 that lead to the development of the newest and probably most secure wireless network security protocol.

Wi-Fi Protected Access 3 (WPA3)

WPA3 was made available in 2018. WPA3 is a powerful wifi security protocol that is built on the massive success and adoption of WPA2.

WPA3 provides various security enhancements meant to;

  • Simplify your wifi security
  • Enable more powerful encryption and authentication
  • Enhance cryptographic strength for sensitive data markets

WPA3 comes in two modes; WPA3-Enterprise and WPA3-Personal.

WPA3-Personal

WPA3-Personal provides better protection to individuals by providing a more powerful password-based authentication.

This means that even if users choose passwords that do not have the recommended complexity, any data they send or receive is still secured.

WPA3-Personal uses Simultaneous Authentication of Equals (SAE) which replaces Pre-Shared Key (PSK) , a protocol that is commonly used in WPA2-Personal.

WPA3-Personal is also resistant to offline attacks where cybercriminals try to crack the password of a wireless network by guessing passwords even when the network is offline.

Even better, this security protocol protects your data traffic even if your password has been compromised after a successful transmission of data.

WPA3-Enterprise

The WPA3-Enterprise security protocol provides government institutions, enterprises, and financial institutions with more powerful security compared to WPA2-Enterprise.

The technology ensures the consistent and strict application of security protocols across the wireless network.

It also provides an optional mode that uses the 192-bit minimum strength security protocols as well as cryptographic tools so as to enhance the protection of sensitive data.

WPA3 is basically the next generation of wifi security as it provides some of the most advanced security protocols to secure wifi networks on a personal and enterprise level.

Although it’s currently an optional security protocol, it might become a necessary requirement as technology becomes more advanced.

WiFi Security: Differences between WEP, WPA, WPA2, and WPA3

Accessing an insecure wireless network at home or office presents a major risk as malicious individuals may access your personal or company data.

In addition to ensuring you only access secured networks, using the recommended security protocol is a good way to reduce possible vulnerabilities.

Hopefully, you’ve learned the major differences between these wireless security protocols and how they work to protect your privacy when connected to wifi.

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