Protocol Details

It is not our intent in this book to present the details of how IEEE 802.11 MAC[2] protocol works. The basic operating concept is simple, as described in the previous paragraphs. However, the numerous control mechanisms for dealing with different speeds, power saving, priority of service, and retransmission run into hundreds of pages. If you are really interested in those details, there are books[3] specializing on the MAC protocol and the physical layer interfaces (in other words, the radio and modem). Much of the cleverness of the standard is in how it coordinates multiple wireless devices so they can share the available radio bandwidth and not spend all their time colliding and transmitting over the top of each other.

[2] Medium access control.

[3] For example, the IEEE 802.11 Handbook: A Designer's Companion by Al Petrick and Bob O'Hara, published by IEEE Press.

This book naturally focuses on the security protocols that have been built into IEEE 802.11. These security protocols have been added in two stages. The first stage was incorporated in 1997 with the introduction of the first standard. The second stage, the so-called robust security network (RSN), was developed during 2001?2003. In fact, the two approaches are quite different and require separate descriptions. However, they both depend on some features of the main IEEE 802.11 protocol that we describe here. Let's look at these details now so the explanation of the security protocol makes sense later.

General Frame Formats

Every transmission over the wireless medium has a similar form, as shown in Figure 5.2. First a special pattern is sent out called the preamble, which the receivers on other Wi-Fi LAN devices can identify as IEEE 802.11. By the end of the preamble, which only lasts a few microseconds, all the receivers in range should have locked on and adjusted themselves to interpret the data that is to follow. The next part of the transmission is called the PLCP header. PLCP stands for Physical Layer Convergence Protocol, a fact that we invite you to forget immediately because it is of no importance to security. Suffice it to say that this header contains information relevant to the receiver logic, such as the data rate of the remaining part of the frame and the packet length. Following the PLCP header is the MAC header, followed by the user data and a cyclic redundancy check (CRC) to detect errors. It is the portion starting with the MAC header in which we are most interested.

Figure 5.2. Basic Frame Format in IEEE 802.11


MAC header

The MAC header comes in three basic flavors, depending on whether the information is a control frame, a management frame, or a data frame. The most important part of the MAC header is the addressing information. The MAC header contains the source and destination addresses to allow delivery of the frame to the correct device. As is standard for IEEE LANs, these addresses are 6 bytes (48 bits) long, and each device has a unique address assigned during manufacture. The destination address can be unicast, which means it must be delivered to a single device (with the matching address); or it can be multicast, which means that it may be delivered to several devices or possibly all devices in range. It is important to remember this concept because it has a profound impact on security. So let's restate:

  • Unicast address: Deliver to one device

  • Multicast address: Deliver to several devices

  • Broadcast address: Deliver to all devices (special case of multicast)

Other IEEE 802 LANs also use MAC headers, although each has its own format. For example, IEEE 802.3 (Ethernet) MAC headers are quite simple and have just two addresses and a field to indicate the length of the data. IEEE 802.11 MAC headers are much more complicated and have many fields used in coordinating the Wi-Fi LAN. The MAC header of an IEEE 802.11 frame can have from two addresses to four addresses, depending on the situation. Conceptually the four addresses are:

  • Transmitter address (TA): The transmitting device

  • Receiver address (RA): The receiving device

  • Source address (SA): The device that created the original message

  • Destination address (DA): The device that eventually receives the message

A moment's thought shows why you might need different combinations. In an ad-hoc network (no AP), the devices send messages directly from one to another. In this case the device that creates the message is also the device that sends it. Similarly, the device that receives the message is also the one that processes it. So in ad-hoc frames, only two addresses are contained in the MAC header.

In an infrastructure network where an access point is operating, all the mobile devices send their frames to the AP, which then forwards them to the correct destination. In this case the mobile device creates and sends the messages; the access point receives them but is not the final destination. Therefore, three addresses are needed:

  • Mobile device address (source and transmitter: SA = TA)

  • Access point address (receiver: RA)

  • Eventual destination (DA)

When messages are going the other way (from the AP to the mobile device), the three addresses are:

  • Originating device address (source: SA)

  • Access point address (transmitter: TA)

  • Mobile device address (receiver: RA and DA)

In principle, all four addresses are used when one access point talks wirelessly to another access point.[4] However, this mode of operation is not fully specified in the standard and the few implementations that exist are usually proprietary to each manufacturer.

[4] Sometimes called wireless bridging.

MAC addresses are relevant to security because, although the rules say that every device has a unique address, it is easy for enemies to break the rules and pretend to be someone else by copying their address. This is a classic hijack attack in which the enemy allows a legitimate device to establish a connection and then takes over the connection by masquerading as that station. Another problem with MAC addresses from a security standpoint is that they have to be visible to the outside world in order to have any meaning. Think of posting a secret letter. You can use whatever code you like in the letter; but if you also use a secret code for the address on the front of the envelope, the postal service isn't going to be impressed and isn't going to deliver it. The problem with public disclosure of your MAC address is that, in principle, someone can track where you go and where you log on even if he can't see what you are saying.

Apart from the addresses, the MAC header contains quite a lot of information related to efficient operation of the Wi-Fi LAN. Most of this is not relevant to security except that it may need to be protected from malicious modification. In the future, for a wireless LAN operating to the proposed IEEE 802.11e approach, the MAC header may also contain information to identify the type of data and the priority with which it should be handled.

Management Frames

Remember that there are three categories of MAC frame: control, management, and data. The control frames are very short and perform functions like acknowledgment and polling. The data frames have a simple format, as shown in Figure 5.2. The user data section carries data that came from a higher layer. The management frames deserve a little more scrutiny because these are involved in the security protocol.

The original 1997 standard listed the following management frames for use in infrastructure mode:

  • Beacon (notify)

  • Probe (request and response)

  • Authenticate (request and response)

  • Associate (request and response)

  • Reassociate (request and response)

  • Dissassociate (notify)

  • Deauthenticate (notify)

In this list, notify means "sent out but no response is expected."

The body of a management frame comprises two parts. The first part is a set of fixed fields appropriate to the type of management frame. The second part contains elements. An element is a self-contained packet of information that may (or may not) be relevant to the receiving device. There may be a number of elements added to the fixed portion of the management message, as shown in Figure 5.3.

Figure 5.3. Management Frame Format


The fixed field contains various items of information specific to particular types of management frames. This includes, for example, flag bits that indicate whether optional features are active. Including in the fixed field area information for options that are not selected would be inefficient; instead, the fixed field just indicates whether the option is used and an appropriate element is added. The use of elements is a powerful and flexible idea with several benefits:

  • The use of elements has allowed the standard to be updated more easily. For example, information required for operating the new security methods can be put into elements. The advantage is that old systems that do not understand the new elements can simply ignore them. If the format of the fixed fields had been changed, the old system would be quite incompatible.

  • Individual manufacturers sometimes take advantage of the extendibility to add elements specific to some special feature that they provide (although this is not really allowed by the standard). For example, many systems add a proprietary element in beacons that indicates, to their own brand of mobile device, how busy the access point is. This allows a feature called load balancing in which the mobile stations distribute themselves evenly across all the access points. Of course, this arrangement doesn't help mobile stations that are made by a different company than the access point because they will not understand the proprietary element and just throw it away. However, the inability to understand proprietary elements does not prevent standard operation.

Each element has a similar structure. The first byte identifies the type of element. The second byte indicates the length: how many bytes are in the element and the information in the bytes that follow. Because the type and length come first, the receiver can skip over the element if it doesn't recognize or understand the type number.

We'll get into more detail on management frames later when we look at the way the security protocols operate; but for now, let's take a quick look at beacon frames. Actually there are several variants depending on the type of wireless LAN you use, but we'll look at the most common one: IEEE 802.11b (Wi-Fi) in infrastructure mode. This beacon has three fixed fields followed by several elements, generally at least four.

The sequence of fields in a normal beacon is shown in Table 5.1. Remember that beacons are sent out by access points to advertise themselves. The information is used in two ways. First, beacons are used to locate access points with the right network name (SSID) and suitable capabilities. Then, after association, the beacons are used to let the attached devices know that the access point is still operating and in range and also to coordinate certain operations such as power save mode. Let's review each field individually:


This field is initialized when the AP first starts and keeps going up in microseconds. The field is 64 bits long, which means, amazingly, that even counting up once per microsecond, it would take over half a million years to overflow! The value is used by all the attached devices to synchronize their operation.

Table 5.1. Beacon Format



MAC header (indicates a beacon)



Fixed Field

Beacon Interval

Fixed Field

Capability Info.

Fixed Field

SSID (network name)


Supported Data Rates


Radio Parameters


Power Save Flags


Beacon Interval

This field tells everybody when the next beacon is expected to follow. The usual default for beacon interval is around 0.1 second.

Capabilities Information

This field identifies whether the AP supports various optional features. The original standard only had five bits defined; but as more and more features have been added to the standard, the number has increased dramatically. This field is important to security because it allows the access point to advertise that it supports the new RSN operation.


The SSID (or network name) gives the identity of the network to prospective wireless devices. There is no security in this?any rogue access point can advertise your SSID and most wireless devices have an option to allow use of any and all SSIDs they find in an area. When there are several Wi-Fi LANs operating in the same space, SSID helps you to choose which one to join. Do not labor under the misconception that choosing an unusual SSID provides some sort of security. This is absolutely not the case.

Supported Data Rates

This element indicates what speeds the access point can support. For example, an old access point might only support rates of 1 or 2Mbps. An IEEE 802.11b access point supports 1, 2, 5.5, or 11Mbps; and an IEEE 802.11g access point rates up to 54Mbps. An IEEE 802.11g device will prefer to associate to an AP that could support its highest data rate so this information is needed in advance. Note that because this is an element and not a fixed field, it can be extended in the future.

Radio Parameters

This element indicates the radio frequency that is being used by the access point. You might think that if you were able to receive the message in the first place, you must know which frequency you have selected. However, in some cases it is possible to be on a nearby frequency and still receive a message from an adjacent channel (although poorly). The effect is similar to hearing a noisy distorted version of a nearby FM radio station when you are not quite tuned in.

Power Save Flags (TIM)

These flags are used to tell sleepy wireless devices that there is data waiting for them. Power-saving devices turn off between beacons and then wake up to check these flags. If there is no flag set for them, and they have nothing they want to send, they can go back to sleep until the next beacon.


It is really important to remember that many new elements have been added over the years as the standard has developed. The ones shown in Table 5.1 are just those in the original standard. When we look in detail at the security protocol, you will see that security-related information is added using elements

    Part II: The Design of Wi-Fi Security