Wi-Fi Encryption: Types, Security & Standards

Instructor: David Delony

David is a freelance writer specializing in technology. He holds a BA in communication.

In this lesson you'll learn about the different types of Wi-Fi encryption standards and which one works best when trying to secure your home or office Wi-Fi network.

Wi-Fi Encryption

Wi-Fi is one of those things that, like refrigerators and running water, has become so ubiquitous that most people just expect it to be there. Just about everywhere you go, from homes to schools to public places, you can pull out your smartphone, tablet, or laptop and be able to connect to a wireless internet connection.

With great convenience, as Peter Parker would say, comes great security risk. If your Wi-Fi network isn't secured properly, anyone can steal your private information and get into your network. With encryption, you can enjoy the convenience of Wi-Fi while lessening the security risk.

Why You Should Care

Without a well-protected Wi-Fi network, anyone can see the traffic that's being sent over the network. This includes everything from what webpages you're viewing to passwords and credit card numbers, and even passwords for online banking.

Even worse, if someone accesses a Wi-Fi network and does things like hacking into somebody else's computer or downloading copyrighted material, you might be on the hook, even if it was somebody else committing illegal acts.

Types of Wi-Fi Encryption

There are several types of Wi-Fi encryption in current use.

The oldest is WEP or Wired Equivalency Protocol, which was formalized in 1999. It originally used a 64-bit encryption key, but was later upgraded to a 128-bit key. A longer key, in theory, would have been more difficult to crack.

Despite the improvements in security, WEP proved very easy to crack, so it's been officially deprecated in favor of a new standard, WPA, or Wi-Fi Protected Access.

WPA is an attempt to make Wi-Fi more secure. The key difference in WPA over WEP is that each packet uses an individual 128-bit key. Since each packet is encrypted, even if an attacker manages to intercept and decrypt one packet, it will be difficult to decode all of the packets coming across the network. So decrpyting one packet would be useless.

WPA still isn't perfect. The first version of WPA used Temporal Key Integrity Protocol or TKIP. TKIP was intended to allow Wi-Fi manfuacturers to deploy WPA over existing network hardware without having to install new devices.

Unfortunately, WPA with TKIP also turned out to be relatively easy to crack, so a new version of WPA, dubbed WPA2, has come on the scene.

The key difference between WPA and WPA2 is that the latter replaces TKIP with AES, or Advanced Encryption Standard.

AES is a lot harder to crack, requiring at least two hours to decipher on a reasonably powerful machine. Most people wanting to intercept communications over a Wi-Fi network would probably not want to make the effort.

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