WPA vs. WEP Encryption

Instructor: Marcia Wert

Marcia has taught Information technology and Mathematics with a master's degree in IT

Explore how to protect your router and keep unauthorized attackers from gaining access to your internet and Wi-Fi with encryption methods WEP and WPA.

What Is Encryption?

Ever experience identity theft or even a charge on a credit card that you did not make? It could be from security problems on your router. Fraud is occurring more and more frequently, and you want to be sure that your computer systems are secure.

Encryption is a process of changing data so that it's hard to decipher. Think of sending a secret message for which only you and the recipient have the key to un-code. This is the essence of encryption - you want no one else to be able to read what you are sending. An encryption key is a random numerical string of bits or numbers/letters that are scrambled so that no one else but the receiver and sender can unscramble them.

Encryption key
Encryption key

Routers facilitate the connection between a device and the internet, and often have encryption built in. Today, we'll be talking about two types of router encryption: WEP and WPA.

Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP)

Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) was first introduced in 1999 and became the most widely used method for security access on routers. It uses 64-bit encryption, meaning that the encryption keys take up 64 bits of memory. In practical use, 64-bit WEP keys could only be 10 characters long. While it might take you a long time to come up with every variation of ten characters ('aaaaaaaaaa', 'aaaaaaaaab', 'aaaaaaaaac', etc), a computer can create and try all of these combinations incredibly quickly. This make it relatively easy to decipher the key, since there are relatively few character combinations to manually try.

On top of this vulnerability, only one to four keys were first shared from the sender's router (pre-shared), or first sent to the receiver's router. Since there were relatively few keys and each was relatively short, this made it easy to crack any message that was sent through a WEP-protected router. WEP was thus very insecure and unreliable for safety purposes.

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineering (IEEE), a not-for-profit association that develops standards for electronic transmissions, realized the potential for data breaches and developed a new encryption method in 2003, as you'll see below. IEEE retired WEP in 2005 due to the security issues.

Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA)

Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) was a direct response to all the security issues of WEP. The most common WPA configuration is WPA-PSK (Pre-Shared Key). WPA uses 256-bit encryption, which is significantly more complex than 64-bit. Remember those 10 character keys from before? Now, keys could be as long as 43 characters! The table below shows the stark difference between these:

Encryption Size Example Key
64-bit 'AAAAaaaa11'
256-bit 'AAAAaaaa1111BBBBbbbb2222CCCCcccc3333DDDDddd'

That's a huge difference. Even a modern computer will take some time to try every option in 256-bit encryption.

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