Why AES?

When the IEEE 802.11 security task group started work in 2000, its goal was to create a solution that was really secure in all the ways discussed in the first section of this book. It was known at that time that WEP was not very secure, although the really devastating attacks on WEP were only discovered later.

One of the important tasks of the group was to select an encryption algorithm for the new security standard. The encryption algorithm is the root of security. It takes known data and converts it into random-looking ciphertext. By itself, an encryption algorithm is by no means sufficient for implementing secure communications: An entire security protocol must be defined for that purpose. However, the encryption algorithm is at the heart of all the operations. If your encryption algorithm requires too much processing power, too much memory, or, in the worst scenario, can be compromised, all the other complexity you built into the security protocol will not produce a useful solution.

The timing of the task group on this decision was good because another agency had been considering the same question for a while. No less than the U.S. National Institute for Science and Technology (NIST) had been looking for an encryption method for the U.S. government and other agencies in a range of security applications. NIST's approach was to hold a sort of competition in which the best experts from around the world submitted a proposal and methods. Eventually, this process resulted in the selection of a method and the approval of a standard, FIPS 197 specifying AES (NIST, 2002). NIST's own announcement is so well written that I include the first part here so you can read the details for yourself:


National Institute of Standards and Technology

[Docket No. 000929280?1201?01]

RIN 0693?ZA42

Announcing Approval of Federal Information Processing Standard

(FIPS) 197, Advanced Encryption Standard (AES)

AGENCY: National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), Commerce.

ACTION: Notice.

The Secretary of Commerce approves FIPS 197, Advanced Encryption Standard (AES), and makes it compulsory and binding on Federal agencies for the protection of sensitive, unclassified information. A new robust encryption algorithm was needed to replace the aging Data Encryption Standard (FIPS 46?3), which had been developed in the 1970s. In September 1997, NIST issued a Federal Register notice soliciting an unclassified, publicly disclosed encryption algorithm that would be available royalty-free worldwide. Following the submission of 15 candidate algorithms and three publicly held conferences to discuss and analyze the candidates, the field was narrowed to five candidates. NIST continued to study all available information and analyses about the candidate algorithms, and selected one of the algorithms, the Rijndael algorithm, to propose for the AES.

EFFECTIVE DATE: This standard is effective May 26, 2002.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Ms. Elaine Barker, (301) 975?2911, National Institute of Standards and Technology, 10 Bureau Drive, STOP 8930, Gaithersburg, MD 20899?8930.

A copy of FIPS 197 is available electronically from the NIST web site at:


The IEEE 802.11 task group decided to adopt AES as its core encryption protocol. One benefit of the choice was high confidence that the method is secure, given the amount of review it has received in the NIST selection process. However, there were other less obvious benefits, too. Encryption technology is subject to export control in the United States and other countries. By using a method that is well understood by government agencies, applications for export licenses are more easily processed.

The selection of AES for IEEE 802.11i was made before all the trouble with WEP became well known. The expectation was that AES-based solutions would gradually replace WEP as the new standard became deployed. It was not expected that existing Wi-Fi LAN adapters would be upgraded to AES. In most cases, this would not be practical because the hardware needed to implement AES is different from that needed for RC4. However, when the flaws of WEP became known, there was a sudden need to upgrade all the existing hardware and this led to the creation and deployment of TKIP. As a result, we now have three potential solutions: WEP, TKIP, and CCMP. There is a lot in common between WPA/TKIP and RSN/CCMP?based systems. Key management, for example, is almost entirely the same. The biggest differences occur at the low layers where the data is encrypted and decrypted. We start by looking at the cipher AES, and how it can be applied to real data.

    Part II: The Design of Wi-Fi Security