Importance of Access Control

Access control is one of the most important elements of security. The object of security is to separate the world into "good guys" and "bad guys." It follows that you cannot achieve security unless you have a mechanism to perform this separation. That mechanism is access control.

On the surface, maintaining control is straightforward. All situations have the following elements:

  • An entity that wants to have access?the supplicant

  • An entity that controls the access gate?the authenticator

  • An entity that decides whether the supplicant is to be admitted?for now, we will call this the authorizer

Suppose a visitor knocks on your front door and your child opens it (with the security chain on). The visitor is the supplicant, your child is the authenticator, and you are the authorizer. Only if you say it's okay will your child take off the security chain and let the visitor in (don't you wish you really had such power!). If you answer the door personally, you take the role of both authenticator and authorizer.

The steps involved in access control follow a similar pattern:

  1. Authenticator is alerted by the supplicant.

  2. Supplicant identifies himself.

  3. Authenticator requests authorization from the authorizer.

  4. Authorizer indicates YES or NO.

  5. Authenticator allows or blocks access.

These steps work to control access; but as we discussed in earlier chapters, if the supplicant wants to come and go repeatedly without going through this procedure each time, he needs to obtain some sort of token that proves that he has been authorized. In the case of a corporation, for example, that might be a swipe card that opens the employee entrance door.

So if access control is really this simple, why devote a whole chapter to it? Well, the reality is that while the concept and goals of access control are simple, designing a system that is immune to attack is very difficult. Most of the access control systems dealing with people are trivially easy to fool by an intelligent con man. How many of us have left our swipe card at home one day and, upon arriving at work, just walked in behind another employee? For Wi-Fi LANs, we can't allow even the slightest flaw in the access control method, or else hacker tools will appear on the Internet within months. Getting it right is hard.

This chapter focuses on the three protocols that are used to implement access security in WPA and RSN:

  • IEEE 802.1X

  • EAP: Extensible Authentication Protocol

  • RADIUS: Remote Authentication Dial-In User Service

The first two protocols are mandatory for WPA and RSN. RADIUS is the method of choice for WPA and is an option for RSN.

There is much confusion about IEEE 802.1X and what it does. Because it is difficult for customers to fully understand all the elements of security, vendors tend to talk about IEEE 802.1X as if it were the entire security solution for Wi-Fi LANs. In reality, as we will see shortly, IEEE 802.1X is only a small part of the solution, albeit an important one. IEEE 802.1X is the foundation of both WPA and RSN.

IETF Standards

Many of the standards in this chapter and in Chapter 9, "Upper Layer Authentication," were developed by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), an organization that is completely different from the IEEE (although both often involve the same people). All the most basic protocols used on the Internet, starting with the Internet Protocol (IP) itself, have been defined by the IETF. The organization, which operates more on technical consensus and less on formal voting, creates documents called RFCs, short for "Request for Comments." The RFC number for EAP is RFC2284, for example. Despite the title, most RFCs are quite stable and not subject to much change. Perhaps these should transition to NMCTs (No More Comments Thank you), but this would not be in the spirit of continuous technical review, which the IETF encourages.

The stability of RFCs allows vendors to implement and deliver products. New ideas in the IETF are floated using draft documents, which are circulated for discussion. Rather than having a number, these drafts have a name incorporating the subject and main author. For example, "draft-haverinen-pppext-eap-sim-03.txt" describes draft three of a proposal written by Henry Haverinen to use EAP with GSM phone systems using a SIM smart card. Proposals that become group work items use the generic "ietf," such as "draft-ietf-pppext-eap-ttls-00.txt," which describes how to use EAP in conjunction with Tunneled TLS authentication.

Many drafts are dropped due to lack of interest, but those that get support from the group eventually move on to become RFCs. This is relevant to EAP because, at the time of this writing, most of the new EAP methods were in the form of draft IETF submissions. In addition, a revised version of EAP was in the works (draft-ietf-pppext-rfc2284bis-02.txt) and expected to supersede the current version. The revision, of course, does not change the existing protocol, but extends and clarify its capabilities. By the time you read this book, this draft might have become a new RFC. All the RFCs and current drafts are publicly available from

Before we look at IEEE 802.1X, let's take a diversion and look at the history of dial-in modem support. "Why now?" you may say. The fact is that the main protocols of EAP and RADIUS were both developed in the context of dial-in access.[1] It turns out that dial-in access control is organized in a very similar way to IEEE 802.1X, which is why the same protocols, EAP and RADIUS, can be applied to both. By reviewing the dial-in case first, you will find that the WPA and RSN cases make more sense.

[1] Strictly, EAP was developed to support Point-to-Point Protocol (PPP), which is very widely used in dial-up networks but also has other applications.

    Part II: The Design of Wi-Fi Security