What Is Wi-Fi Security? WEP, WPA, WPA2 & WPA3 Differences

What Is Wi-Fi Security? WEP, WPA, WPA2 & WPA3 Differences

Wi-Fi security refers to the protection of Wi-Fi networks and connected devices from unauthorized access, data breaches, hacking, and other potential cyber threats. It involves implementing security measures, such as encryption, authentication, and security protocols, to protect the data that is transmitted in a wireless network, its users / devices and the network infrastructure that it is connected to. 

Wi-Fi security protocols like Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP), Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA), WPA2, and WPA3 are designed to provide different levels of security. For instance, WEP is the oldest and least secure, while WPA3 is the latest and most secure protocol.

In a secured Wi-Fi network, end to end data encryption and continuous user & device authorization are essential. Authentication of both the user and the device based on secure credentials and certificates is a critical requirement for enterprise deployments. Today, it is expected that Wi-Fi networks are more secure than wired networks given the mandatory requirements for authentication, authorization, encryption, traffic isolation requirements - but of course when implemented and maintained correctly.

In addition to these critical security measures, Nile's capabilities for network security extend to implementing zero trust principles across both Wi-Fi and wired access. With Nile, the zero trust security model is not an add-on, it is embedded within the network from the start, reducing the attack surface across the LAN.

As an essential component to enable end-to-end design for Wi-Fi security, Nile’s solution includes hardened hardware, TPM security, and MACSec encryption to protect corporate resources and relevant IT infrastructure. It uses 802.1X and SSO auth with dynamic and automated device profiling to ensure strong network access control to protect digital assets. Through such controls, it ensures isolation across all authorized users and IoT devices, protecting users and devices from threats.

Nile's security approach also includes dynamic rules that move with users and devices, eliminating the need for static ACLs. Security patch updates within a Nile network are handled by Nile's production engineers, further providing peace of mind and an extra layer of protection. It centralizes all traffic and shares user/device attributes with firewalls for enhanced security. Guest user traffic is tunneled to Nile's point-of-presence (PoP), protecting your network.

How does Wi-Fi security work?

Wi-Fi security applies encryption and authentication measures to the wireless network to protect it against unapproved access, spoofing, data loss, and data interception. Here's a quick rundown of how it works:

Encrypting data

This is the foundation of Wi-Fi security. Once a user is authenticated, the Wi-Fi access point will encode the data transmitted between it and the user’s devices in a way that makes it extremely difficult for an unwanted third party to interpret. This scrambled information can only be deciphered by devices that possess the correct encryption key.

Authentication

In its basic form with pre-shared key (PSK) Wi-Fi security involves validating the identities of devices trying to access a network with a simple access code. For enterprise Wi-Fi deployments, this is certainly not adequate. User identity validation with corporate access credentials and relevant device level certificates are required to onboard users and their IT administered and/or own personal devices onto a secure enterprise network.

Wi-Fi security protocols

Wi-Fi security relies on protocols that determine how encryption is applied. The prevalent Wi-Fi security methods include WEP, WPA, WPA2, and WPA3 protocols. However, WEP and WPA are older, outdated models with significant security weaknesses. WPA2 and WPA3 are the most up-to-date and secure.

Network type

Wi-Fi security will also be different based on the type of network–whether it's a home, business, or public Wi-Fi network. Home and business networks typically have more robust security measures in place, like WPA2 or WPA3 security protocols, as they handle more sensitive data. Public Wi-Fi networks might not have any security features, requiring users to employ further safety measures like VPNs.

In essence, Wi-Fi security works by implementing a series of measures designed to make unauthorized access to network data significantly more difficult.

What are the types of wireless security protocols?

There are four main types of wireless security protocols:

  1. Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP): Introduced in 1997, WEP was the first encryption scheme used to secure wireless networks. However, it has significant security weaknesses and is now considered outdated and unsecured.
  2. Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA): Implemented in 2003, WPA improved upon WEP by introducing Temporal Key Integrity Protocol (TKIP) which dynamically changes the encryption key to prevent decryption. It also introduced a message-integrity check function to prevent data tampering.
  3. Wi-Fi Protected Access 2 (WPA2): WPA2, introduced in 2004, is an upgrade from WPA and is currently the most commonly used protocol. It replaces TKIP with the more secure Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) and introduces Counter Mode with Cipher Block Chaining Message Authentication Code Protocol (CCMP) for additional security.
  4. Wi-Fi Protected Access 3 (WPA3): Released in 2018, WPA3 is the newest and most secure protocol to date. It provides stronger protections against brute-force password-guessing attacks and enhances encryption through a feature called "forward secrecy" which protects data even if the password is later compromised.

To ensure Wi-Fi security, use WPA2/3 for the best protection. Both WEP and WPA are susceptible to attacks that can compromise the network and impact wireless performance.

How do unsecured Wi-Fi networks pose a risk?

Unsecured Wi-Fi networks can pose serious security risks:

Data theft

Since the network is not encrypted, anyone within range can easily intercept the data you are sending and receiving. This can include sensitive information like passwords, credit card numbers, private emails, and messages.

An attacker could set up a packet sniffer on an open Wi-Fi network at a local coffee shop, capturing private data from unsuspecting customers.

Unauthorized network access

Unsecured Wi-Fi networks allow unapproved users to access and use the network, potentially slowing down your connection speed or consuming your bandwidth without your knowledge.

A cybercriminal, using commonly available tools, could identify and connect to an unprotected Wi-Fi network in a corporate office, subsequently accessing shared files or consuming the company's bandwidth.

Network injection attacks

Hackers could inject harmful data or malware into your device through an unsecured network. Once inside your device, malicious software could steal your sensitive data, damage your system, or turn your device into a bot within a larger network controlled by hackers.

A hacker might identify vulnerabilities in an unsecured Wi-Fi network at a retail store, injecting malware into connected point-of-sale systems, leading to compromised customer payment information.

Man-in-the-middle attacks

Unsecured networks make it easier for hackers to position themselves between your device and the connection point. This means the hackers can potentially spy on your web activity, capture your login credentials, and even alter the data you receive.

On a college campus, a hacker could exploit an unsecured public Wi-Fi network, positioning themselves between a student's device and the university's online portal, thereby capturing login details and potentially altering the data being exchanged.

Identity theft

Cybercriminals can steal personal information, such as your full name, social security number, address, or date of birth, and commit fraud or sell your identity online.

After intercepting data from unprotected Wi-Fi at a medical clinic, a hacker could gather patient information, including health records and social security numbers, use it for fraudulent activities, or sell it on the dark web.

Rogue hotspots

Some cybercriminals create fake Wi-Fi networks that masquerade as legitimate public Wi-Fi hotspots. Unknowing users connect to these hotspots, providing the criminals full visibility of the user’s online activities and access to personal information.

For instance, cybercriminals could set up a fake Wi-Fi hotspot named "Tourist Free Wi-Fi." Unsuspecting tourists might connect, thinking they're accessing a legitimate service, only to have their online activity recorded and personal data stolen.

What are some ways to protect a Wi-Fi network?

There are several ways to protect a Wi-Fi network. Consider using a combination of the methods below for a more layered and robust Wi-Fi network.

Strengthen your passwords

Make sure to customize your Wi-Fi network's password. Use a mix of letters, numbers, and special characters to make brute force attacks and password guessing more difficult.

Update the default login

Routers are usually pre-set with a generic username and password. When setting up your network, change these defaults to something unique and secure to avoid giving an easy access point to potential hackers.

Encrypt your network

Encrypt your Wi-Fi network with the most advanced protocol available. Currently, WPA2 and WPA3 offer robust network protection.

Update firmware regularly

Keeping your router's firmware up to date can help in ensuring that your network is protected against the latest vulnerabilities that hackers could exploit.

Establish a guest network

Create a separate network for your guests to use rather than giving them access to your main network to protect sensitive data. Proper network segmentation helps secure data, manage network resources, and prevent malware from spreading.

Use a firewall

Enable your router's built-in firewall or use a standalone one. Firewalls act as barriers between your network and potential threats from the internet, filtering incoming and outgoing traffic based on a set of security rules. This can effectively block unapproved access, malware, and other malicious activities from compromising your devices and data.

Filter by MAC address

Every device has a unique identifier called a Media Access Control (MAC) address. You can configure your router to only allow specific devices with designated MAC addresses to connect to your network. This is ideal for administrators who want to only allow company devices on their Wi-Fi network.

Implement a VPN

Consider setting up a Virtual Private Network (VPN) for an extra layer of encryption and IP masking. A VPN ensures that your internet traffic is funneled through a secure, encrypted tunnel, making it difficult for eavesdroppers to intercept your data. This is especially important for remote employees who could be connecting from a vulnerable network.

Monitor connected devices

Regularly review the list of devices connected to your network. If you notice an unfamiliar device, this could be a sign your network security has been compromised. Some routers and device monitoring software can alert you to potential threats or anomalies.

Which Wi-Fi security solutions can protect my network?

The following software and devices provide safeguards against unapproved access, data theft, malware infections, and other cyber threats that might compromise the integrity, availability, and confidentiality of data transmitted over a Wi-Fi network.

Implement an intrusion detection system (IDS)

Intrusion detection systems detect unusual activities or behaviors, signaling possible breaches in network security.

Deploy an intrusion prevention system (IPS)

Intrusion prevention systems proactively identify and halt threats, ensuring the network remains protected from potential harm. For example, an IPS could detect a rogue device is attempting to brute force a Wi-Fi password, and immediately block its MAC address to prevent further guesses.

Utilize anti-malware solutions

Anti-malware tools safeguard against various malicious software types, from viruses and ransomware to spyware. Anti-malware software can protect staff devices from some attacks, even if they’re connected to an insecure network.

Engage in network monitoring

Network monitoring software continuously oversees traffic, identifying potential threats, highlighting anomalies, and pinpointing vulnerabilities.

Enforce authentication and access control

Authentication and access control mechanisms guarantee that only authorized users or devices access the network, reducing risks like unauthorized access due to password sharing. Many administrators use RADIUS (Remote Authentication Dial-In User Service) to centralize authentication.

Adopt unified threat management systems (UTMS)

Unified threat management systems consolidate multiple security features, encompassing antivirus, firewall, intrusion prevention, and VPN capabilities, into a singular device for streamlined protection.

Nile's solution integrates traditionally separate network security components into a single solution, eliminating the need for complex configuration changes and additional appliances. This includes protection against east-west traffic flows to prevent malware proliferation. Nile's customers can utilize zero trust principles for all connected devices, eliminating the burden of maintaining security policy definitions via VLANs, static ACLs, and NAC configurations. 

Furthermore, Nile's solution has achieved ISO 27001, SOC2 Type II, CSA Level 1 certifications, demonstrating its commitment to robust security standards.

What attacks do cybercriminals use against Wi-Fi networks?

Man-in-the-Middle (MitM) Attacks

Cybercriminals intercept and possibly alter communications between two parties without their knowledge, posing a serious risk to data privacy and integrity.

Denial of Service Attacks

By overwhelming a network with excessive traffic, attackers can slow it down or, in extreme cases, render the network completely inoperable.

Encryption Cracking

Determined attackers exploit vulnerabilities in older security protocols like WEP and WPA, deciphering encryption and accessing confidential network data.

Evil Twin Attacks

Cybercriminals craft a deceptive wireless network that appears genuine. Unsuspecting users who connect to this network inadvertently expose their data to the attacker.

Network Injection

In this form of attack, malevolent payloads are introduced into the network, potentially causing damage or enabling the theft of sensitive information.

War Driving

Individuals, equipped typically with a laptop, scout for and exploit unprotected wireless networks, capitalizing on lax security measures.

Packet Sniffing

Utilizing specific software, attackers capture data packets in transit across the network, gaining unauthorized access to potentially confidential information.

Account Takeover

When cybercriminals compromise Wi-Fi security, they can hijack user accounts linked to the network. With this control, they can change settings, authorize fraudulent transactions, or even lock out the actual user, all while appearing as the legitimate account holder.

KRACK (Key Reinstallation Attack)

This particularly severe attack targets the WPA2 protocol, enabling attackers to decrypt and potentially tamper with network traffic.

To mitigate these risks, it’s essential to ensure your WPA2 network has been patched to prevent KRACK attacks. If available, opt to use WPA3 for the most robust encryption currently available.  If you can't immediately update your devices or router, consider using a VPN when connecting to public Wi-Fi networks or untrusted networks.

How to protect a business Wi-Fi network

Securing a Wi-Fi network is critical for large organizations to protect their data, assets, and reputation. Here are some specific tips tailored for large enterprises:

1. Partner with a professional

From encryption, to network segmentation, many aspects of Wi-Fi security require expertise, continuous monitoring, and maintenance to implement correctly.

Many organizations choose to partner with a trusted technology provider, like Nile. Nile’s next-gen wired and wireless LAN solution, Nile Access Service, takes the guesswork out of network security, allowing you to focus on critical IT initiatives thanks to a network infrastructure that comes with industry’s first performance guarantee.

2. Use enterprise-level encryption

Adopt enterprise-grade encryption protocols, preferably WPA3-Enterprise. This offers stronger data protection through individualized encryption even when multiple devices use the same network.

3. Implement multi-factor authentication (MFA)

Require multiple forms of authentication before granting network access, such as a password combined with a mobile authentication app or hardware token.

4. Conduct regular network audits

Schedule routine assessments of the network infrastructure to identify potential vulnerabilities and ensure compliance with industry standards.

5. Utilize wireless intrusion detection and prevention systems (WIDS and WIPS)

Deploy WIDPS to monitor the airwaves for unauthorized devices or abnormal patterns and automatically take countermeasures.

6. Adopt advanced threat protection

Employ security solutions that use AI or machine learning to detect and respond to anomalous behaviors in real time.

7. Isolate the guest network

Always maintain a separate network for guests, vendors, or temporary users. Ensure it's isolated from critical business resources.

8. Educate and train employees

Regularly inform and train staff about safe online habits, the risks of phishing attacks, and the importance of reporting any suspicious activities.

9. Restrict wireless access points

Only permit trusted devices to connect to the network. Use MAC address filtering or device management solutions to ensure only vetted devices have access.

10. Disable WPS and limit admin access via Wi-Fi

Turn off Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS) and ensure that administrative access to routers and access points is only available via a wired connection or secure VPN.

11. Keep updates and patches regular

Ensure all network hardware (routers, switches, access points) undergoes regular updates with the latest firmware to address any known vulnerabilities.

12. Set up a RADIUS server

For tighter security, establish a RADIUS (Remote Authentication Dial-In User Service) server for centralized authentication, authorization, and accounting.

13. Minimize signal spillover

Adjust the strength of Wi-Fi signals to cover only the intended area, reducing the risk of outsiders trying to connect from nearby locations.

14. Deploy mobile device management (MDM)

An MDM solution facilitates improved management and control of devices that access the corporate network, ensuring they meet organizational security policies.

Take the guesswork out of Wi-Fi security

Nile Access Service detects rogue access points, mitigates threats, and ensures your Wi-Fi remains intruder-free, all while guaranteeing network performance. Our intelligent system filters out friendly access points, alerting only to genuine threats like man-in-the-middle attacks and rogue APs automatically: no manual intervention or configuration is required.

Nile's key security features are designed to reduce the attack surface across an enterprise LAN. Nile Access Service extends zero trust security principles to the enterprise campus and branch. This means that no user or device is trusted by default, regardless of whether they are on the campus or in a branch.

Nile Access Service orchestrates user/device level segmentation after mandating secure network access, eliminating the need for VLANs and static ACLs across wired/Wi-Fi for isolation of traffic flows across the network.

Note that, Nile shares the responsibility of maintaining your latest network security implementation, ensuring no security mishaps due to misconfiguration or software updates.

Trust nothing and authenticate everything with Nile’s unique approach to wired and wireless access network security: get in touch and let’s discover how you too can upgrade your enterprise network security with Nile.

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