Even if you know you need to secure your Wi-Fi network (and have already done so), you probably find all the encryption acronyms a little bit puzzling. Read on as we highlight the differences between encryption standards like WEP, WPA, and WPA2–and why it matters which acronym you slap on your home Wi-Fi network.
What Does It Matter?
You did what you were told to do, you logged into your router after you purchased it and plugged it in for the first time, and set a password. What does it matter what the little acronym next to the security encryption standard you chose was? As it turns out, it matters a whole lot: as is the case with all encryption standards, increasing computer power and exposed vulnerabilities have rendered older standards at risk. It’s your network, it’s your data, and if someone hijacks your network for their illegal hijinks, it’ll be the police knocking on your door. Understanding the differences between encryption protocols and implementing the most advanced one your router can support (or upgrading it if it can’t support current gen secure standards) is the difference between offering someone easy access to your home network and sitting secure.
WEP, WPA, and WPA2: Wi-Fi Security Through the Ages
Since the late 1990s, Wi-Fi security algorithms have undergone multiple upgrades with outright depreciation of older algorithms and significant revision to newer algorithms. A stroll through the history of Wi-Fi security serves to highlight both what’s out there right now and why you should avoid older standards.
Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP)
Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) is the most widely used Wi-Fi security algorithm in the world. This is a function of age, backwards compatibility, and the fact that it appears first in the encryption type selection menus in many router control panels.
WEP was ratified as a Wi-Fi security standard in September of 1999. The first versions of WEP weren’t particularly strong, even for the time they were released, because U.S. restrictions on the export of various cryptographic technology led to manufacturers restricting their devices to only 64-bit encryption. When the restrictions were lifted, it was increased to 128-bit. Despite the introduction of 256-bit WEP encryption, 128-bit remains one of the most common implementations.
Despite revisions to the algorithm and an increased key size, over time numerous security flaws were discovered in the WEP standard and, as computing power increased, it became easier and easier to exploit them. As early as 2001 proof-of-concept exploits were floating around and by 2005 the FBI gave a public demonstration (in an effort to increase awareness of WEP’s weaknesses) where they cracked WEP passwords in minutes using freely available software.
Despite various improvements, work-arounds, and other attempts to shore up the WEP system, it remains highly vulnerable and systems that rely on WEP should be upgraded or, if security upgrades are not an option, replaced. The Wi-Fi Alliance officially retired WEP in 2004.