What is a Network Security Key? - Definition & Types

Instructor: David Whitsett

David has taught computer applications, computer fundamentals, computer networking, and marketing at the college level. He has a MBA in marketing.

Leaving things unlocked - even your digital assets - can lead to problems. In this lesson, we'll define what a network security key is and examine some of the different types. We'll also discuss how they're used.

What Is A Network Security Key?

Imagine going to bed and leaving the front door of your home not just unlocked, but wide open! Anyone passing by can clearly see that they could come right in - how secure would you feel? On a wireless network, if you don't set it up with a network security key (a password required for accessing network resources), you've left your network wide open. The network security key is your network's equivalent to a shut and locked door, with the password acting as a key for entry. If you don't protect your wireless network with a strong password, someone can get into the devices on your network (access files on your computer) or use your Internet connection. There are examples in the news almost every day of the damage that unauthorized users do to networks.

Once you have provided the authorized network security key, the communications from your computer to the network are protected by encryption. Encrypted data can only be decoded (unscrambled) by someone with the proper key. By giving the correct password, your device initiates a session with the network, and the type of encryption being used is agreed upon and used from that point on.

Types of Network Security

There are three main types of wireless security/encryption in use today: WEP, WPA, and WPA2.

WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) is an older protection method that was designed to provide a similar level of protection to wireless network traffic as is provided in a wired network. However, WEP has been shown to be fairly easy to crack (in other words, it's easy to defeat its security) via intercepting wireless transmissions and using a wireless network security analysis tool. WPA (Wi Fi Protected Access) is a newer protection method than WEP and provides a higher level of encryption and authentication (a shared greeting procedure used to verify identity). WPA2 is the latest version of WI-FI Protected Access and is standard on most network devices today. WPA2 can use two different forms of encryption: AES (Advanced Encryption Standard) or TKIP (Temporal Key Integrity Protocol). AES offers the stronger encryption of the two.

In home networks, the choice of which type of wireless protection to use is made during the setup of the networking device, called a wireless access point or wireless router. This device can be provided by the Internet service provider, or consumers may provide their own. Wireless routers also sometimes have wired Ethernet connections so that they can also function as a network switch.

Wireless router with wired Ethernet ports
Wireless router

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