For the first five years of its life, IEEE 802.11 had only one method defined for security. This was called Wired Equivalent Privacy or WEP (often misidentified as Wireless Effective Privacy and other variants). In 2000, as Wi-Fi LANs increased in popularity, they attracted the attention of the cryptographic community, who rapidly detected cracks in the WEP approach. By the end of 2001, tools were available on the Internet designed to crack open WEP in a fairly short time.

For many people, WEP is the only choice until the new security methods added to the IEEE 802.11 standard become established. Even with its weaknesses, WEP is still more effective than no security at all, providing you are aware of its potential weaknesses. It provides a barrier, albeit small, to attack and is therefore likely to cause many attackers to just drive on down the street in search of an unprotected network. Most of the attacks depend on collecting a reasonable sample of transmitted data so, for a home user, where the number of packets sent is quite small, WEP is still a fairly safe option. This section looks at how WEP works in detail, what its weaknesses are, and what an attacker has to do to break in.

Some people criticize the designers of the original IEEE 802.11 standard for creating WEP with inherent weaknesses. However, there are a few things that need to be taken into account. The first is that, at the time WEP was designed, it was not intended to provide military levels of security. As the name suggests, WEP was intended to make it difficult to break in?in the same sense that it is difficult to break into a building to connect to the wired LAN?but not impossible to break in. Section 8.2.2 of the 1999 IEEE 802.11 standard states the following as the objectives for WEP (quoted verbatim):

  • It is reasonably strong: The security afforded by the algorithm relies on the difficulty of discovering the secret key through a brute-force attack. This in turn is related to the length of the secret key and the frequency of changing keys. WEP allows for the changing of the key (K) and frequent changing of the Initialization Vector (IV).

  • It is self-synchronizing: WEP is self-synchronizing for each message. This property is critical for a data-link-level encryption algorithm, where "best effort" delivery is assumed and packet loss rates may be high.

  • It is efficient: The WEP algorithm is efficient and may be implemented in either hardware or software.

  • It may be exportable: Every effort has been made to design the WEP system operation so as to maximize the chances of approval, by the U.S. Department of Commerce, of export from the U.S. of products containing a WEP implementation. However, due to the legal and political climate toward cryptography at the time of publication, no guarantee can be made that any specific IEEE 802.11 implementations that use WEP will be exportable from the USA.

  • It is optional: The implementation and use of WEP is an IEEE 802.11 option.

Notice that the requirements try to balance "reasonably strong" against the need for simple implementation and exportability. The issue of self-synchronization is really important for Wi-Fi LAN. Basically, what it says is that each packet must be separately encrypted so, given a packet and the key, you should have all the information you need. Clearly, you don't want a situation in which a single dropped packet makes all the following ones indecipherable.

The IEEE 802.11 standard only ever specified the use of 40-bit keys. As we have seen, 40 bits is too short to withstand serious brute force attack, which was why it was acceptable under export rules. The rationale was that if, say, a bank was intending to use wireless LAN, it would have its own security protocol running over the top of WEP and this security would be much higher, as appropriate to its application.

In retrospect, accepting this concept of a "reasonable" level of security was a mistake. Some people will argue that there are only two types of security: strong and none. The standard should probably have incorporated a really strong solution or taken a position that security had to be provided by some other means (like virtual private networking (VPN), for example). However, the power of marketing came to play and, in the promotion of IEEE 802.11 to the world, somehow the word "reasonably" was dropped in the brochures and WEP was simply described as secure. Furthermore, after export restrictions were relaxed, manufacturers made nonstandard extensions by using 104-bit keys. This step made them feel justified in adding adjectives like "extremely" and "absolutely" to the brochure. WEP was now completely secure, at least in the minds of the marketing managers. The long key extensions were adopted as part of the Wi-Fi specification and became the norm in the industry in 1999.

For the moment, let's step back from the marketing hype and look at how WEP works. To do that, we need to get back to the low-level IEEE 802.11 messages, some of which are covered in Chapter 5. All of the following refers to the 1999 standard. We cover the new security protocols in depth in a later section.

The IEEE 802.11 (1999) defined two levels of security: open and shared key. Open security really means no security. It is used in the same way that one would say, "I went to work and left the front door of my house open." Most people have figured out this is not a good security policy for their homes, and you probably feel the same way about Wi-Fi LANs. Shared key simply means that both ends of the wireless link know a key with a matching value. To be useful, this must be a secret shared only between trusted parties.

    Part II: The Design of Wi-Fi Security