Over the last decade, the growth in wireless technology, especially in Wi-Fi has been incredible. From being an expensive and luxury commodity, Wi-Fi networks and devices have become a must-have for every household and business. The main advantage of a Wireless Network is, well it is wireless i.e., no need for any wires. This advantage is also sometimes a security concern in the form of hackers. A strong Network Security Key in combination with a unique SSID can help us in avoiding security risks. But what exactly is this Network Security Key? What are the different types of Network Security Keys?
We will try to explore these concepts in this article and we hope after reading the article, you will be able to understand the importance of a strong network security key to protect your Wi-Fi network from attacks.
Local Area Network or LAN has been the common form of networking for offices, campuses, homes, etc. for a long time. CAT5 or CAT6 cables run through the building and allow multiple devices to connect with each other and also to an access point (modem or router) to connect to the internet.
A WLAN or Wireless Local Area Network, on the other hand, uses radio signals to transmit and receive data without any wires. The IEEE 802.11 is the standard for implementing WLAN and is commonly known as Wi-Fi. There are different wireless standards in IEEE 802.11 such as 802.11b, 802.11a, 802.11n, 802.11ac, 802.11ax, etc. and all these operate at radio frequencies of either 2.4GHz or 5GHz.
You can use Wi-Fi routers and access points to wirelessly connect smartphones, laptops, tablets, computers, TVs, and many other devices to the internet.
What is Network Security Key?
Whenever you are trying to connect your laptop or smartphone to a Wi-Fi network, you need two things: the name of the Wi-Fi network and a password. The name of the Wi-Fi network is often known as SSID, which is short for Service Set Identifier.
Coming to the password, a fancy term for Wi-Fi password is Network Security Key. It is sometimes also known as Wireless Security Key. The Network Security Key is usually an alphanumeric sequence of characters but sometimes it can also be a digital signature or even biometric data.
The main purpose of the Network Security Key is authentication. For example, you visited your friend’s apartment and want to connect to his / her Wi-Fi network. You will ask your friend for the Wi-Fi network name (which is SSID). After selecting the appropriate SSID, you will then have to enter the network security key, which is nothing but the password.
Once your friend gives you the correct key, then you can connect to the Wi-Fi network. It is clear that only a correct password will give you access to the Wi-Fi network and in this way, the network security key can authenticate the device. So, we can say that the Network Security Key acts as the first line of defense from security attacks.
Types of Network Security Keys
During the process of authentication, network devices use the network security keys for data encryption. But what is Encryption?
It is the process of concealing the data so that even if an unauthorized person acquires the data, they won’t be able to read or understand it. While encryption scrambles the data, decryption does the opposite. So, whenever we speak of Network Security Keys, it usually applies to both authentication and encryption.
The following are some of the popular types of Network Security Keys used frequently.
- Authentication through a central database
- Two-factor Authentication
- Biometric Authentication
In this, WPA is the most popular and one of the widely used Network Security Key authentication while WEP is Yester generation’s method. So, we will explore these two.
1. Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP)
WEP or Wired Equivalent Privacy is a Wi-Fi security standard introduced as a part of the IEEE 802.11 Wireless Standard in 1999. WEP uses 40-bit or 104-bit keys to encrypt the data using the RC4 Encryption Algorithm. This type of authentication is known as Shared Key Authentication. WEP also supports open authentication, but let us focus on the shared key authentication.
In shared key WEP authentication, the access point and the station (or client) go through a 4-way handshake.
- First, the station sends an authentication request to the access point.
- Then the access point sends a response in the form of a challenge text, which is a pseudorandom number generated using a pre-shared key and a 24-bit initialization vector (IV). This pseudorandom number is also known as nonce value.
- The station then encrypts the pseudorandom number using the WEP key and its own initialization vector and sends a response to the challenge.
- Finally, the access point encrypts the pseudorandom number using the WEP key and compares it to the response from the station. If they match, it means that the WEP key is authorized and the access point acknowledges the station’s authentication to join the network.
The main problem with WEP is that all the access points and stations have the same shared key. There is no mechanism for the access point to reliably identify the station. Also, the authentication is one-way i.e., the access point authenticates the station but not the other way.
In open authentication, the station sends an authentication request message to the access point for which the access point acknowledges with a message confirming the station is authenticated.
From the above discussion, it may seem that shared key authentication is more secure than open authentication but in reality, the opposite is true. In shared key authentication, a hacker can get both the pseudorandom number as well as the encrypted response. Using these two, they can easily extract the encryption key.
For a long time now, shared-key authentication WEP has not been used as a security standard for Wi-Fi networks. If you still want to use WEP, you can go for open authentication rather than shared key authentication.
2. Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA)
The loopholes in WEP have led the IEEE to improve the security of IEEE 802.11 wireless networks Importance of a Strong Network Security Key and they essentially developed WPA or Wi-Fi Protected Access.
There are three versions of WPA called:
The original WPA is based on Temporal Key Integrity Protocol (TKIP) and it uses the RC4 algorithm to encrypt the data. As a result, WPA also worked on the existing hardware. While still using the pre-shared key (similar to WEP Key), TKIP encrypts each packet of data with a unique encryption key that is based on the pre-shared key.
Essentially, TKIP is nothing but a more secured version of WEP which uses the pre-shared key (WEP Key) and a unique initialization vector (IV) for every data packet. WPA is implemented in two ways:
The WPA-PSK or WPA-Pre Shared Key is also known as WPA-Personal and it is very similar to WEP Key: you create a key and share it with all the devices that want to join the network. The main difference is that the key is now 256-bit.
The WPA-Enterprise on the other hand is much more complex than WPA-PSK. For starters, WPA-Enterprise requires backend servers to authenticate each and every device. Once the initial complicated setup is done, managing devices in a large organization with better security.
Original WPA was developed as a temporary replacement for WEP while WPA2 was being developed. It supports TKIP like the WPA but in addition, WPA2 also introduced a more secure option called CCMP AES. The Counter Mode with Cipher Block Chaining Message Authentication Code Protocol is based on the much more robust AES or Advanced Encryption Standard.
WPA2-Personal with AES encryption is currently the most widely used authentication method for most modern Wi-Fi routers and access points in homes and small offices. If you are setting up a new Wi-Fi network, you have to use WPA2-AES for better security.
The WPA3 is relatively new and likely to replace WPA2 in the near future. It is also based on CCMP AES but with much more cryptographic strength.
Set a Strong Network Security Key
It is clear that the password or Network Security Key is an essential thing for modern Wi-Fi networks. A strong key will definitely help you keep your network and connected devices very safe from hackers.
With encryption, the data is also unreadable and a good network security key helps the case. This will protect your data and information (usernames, passwords, bank info, financial data, etc.) from being compromised.
While a Wi-Fi network is simple to install and use, it is also susceptible to security threats. A unique SSID and a strong Network Security Key (password) will definitely help you secure your network and avoid any cyber-attacks. We learned the importance of network security keys, different types of network security keys, and also their significance.