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WEP vs WPA vs WPA2: What’s the Best Wi-Fi Security? 

By Tibor Moes / September 2022

WEP vs WPA vs WPA2: What’s the Best Wi-Fi Security?

WEP vs WPA vs WPA2

Nowadays, few people can imagine life without access to the wireless internet. Wi-Fi has become an essential part of society, from entertainment to working from home. However, using Wi-Fi can be as dangerous as it is necessary.

Unlike their wired counterparts, wireless networks have always been considered insecure. For this reason, Wi-Fi security is crucial for keeping the network protected. Several Wi-Fi security protocols have been developed to keep you safe online. These protocols include WEP, WPA, and WPA2.

Let’s unscramble this alphabet soup and discover the best Wi-Fi security option.

Summary: There are three widely used wireless security protocols. Although each system has pros and cons, WPA2 is currently the best Wi-Fi security option. This protocol has addressed almost all of its predecessor’s security flaws and offers the most powerful encryption method. With that in mind, WPA2 is recommended for use on all Wi-Fi-certified products by the Wi-Fi Alliance.

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What Are Wi-Fi Security Protocols?

Wi-Fi security protocols serve to prevent unwanted users from accessing a specific wireless network. By doing so, these protocols ensure your data is secure and only accessible to authorized users.

Wi-Fi Alliance, a non-profit organization that owns the Wi-Fi trademark, certifies all Wi-Fi security protocols. Four wireless security options are currently available worldwide:

  • WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy)
  • WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access)
  • WPA 2 (Wi-Fi Protected Access 2)
  • WPA 3 (Wi-Fi Protected Access 3)

Although these protocols have some key differences, the underlying principle remains the same. They use cryptographic keys to randomize data, thus making it undecipherable for hackers and other malicious users.

Why Do I Need a Wi-Fi Security Protocol?

If no security measures are in place, your internet data is vulnerable and can be easily intercepted. The same goes for implementing an outdated or weak Wi-Fi security protocol.

At best, this means your internet bandwidth will be stolen. In the worst-case scenario, malicious users can get a hold of your data and hijack your network to use it for illegal activities. Other common misuses of an unsecured router include:

  • Monitoring your internet activity
  • Accessing sensitive data
  • Installing malicious software on your network

Therefore, it’s vital to understand the differences between security protocols and implement the most advanced option your router can support.

What Is WEP?

WEP stands for Wired Equivalent Privacy, and it represents the most widely used Wi-Fi security protocol worldwide. There are several reasons for WEP’s prevalence:

  • It’s the oldest Wi-Fi security protocol.
  • It appears first in the protocol selection menu.
  • Other protocols are operationally backward compatible with WEP.
  • The device is too old to support newer security protocols.

WEP was ratified by the Wi-Fi Alliance in 1999. This privacy component was established to provide wireless local area networks with a comparable security level to their wired counterparts. However, despite claiming to provide the same security benefits as a wired connection, the WEP protocol has been plagued by multiple security flaws since its inception.

In fact, the first versions of WEP didn’t just fail to meet today’s security standards. They were weak even for the time they were released. This weakness resulted from the U.S. restricting the export of various cryptographic technologies, leading the manufacturers to limit their devices to 64-bit encryption.

Once the restrictions were lifted, the encryption was increased to 128-bit, one of the most commonly implemented security protocols today.

Unfortunately, new WEP versions did little to eliminate the protocol’s vulnerabilities, which only worsened as the computing power increased. Consequently, it became much easier to exploit these flaws. To increase awareness, the FBI publicly demonstrated the fact. It took them mere minutes to crack WEP passwords using freely available software.

Because of its many vulnerabilities and failed attempts to address them, WEP was officially retired in 2004. Since WEP security has become obsolete, systems relying on this protocol should be upgraded as soon as possible.

What Is WPA?

WPA is an acronym for Wi-Fi Protected Access. This security standard was released as a direct response to WEP’s growing vulnerabilities. The Wi-Fi Alliance introduced WPA in 2003, just a year before the organization officially retired WEP.

The WPA protocol is undoubtedly more secure than its predecessor since it uses a 256-bit encryption key. This WPA key is a significant upgrade from the 64-bit and 128-bit security keys the WEP system used.

Besides using longer security keys, WPA also advanced how these keys are used. Instead of employing a fixed-key system like WEP, WPA introduced the Temporal Key Integrity Protocol (TKIP). TKIP dynamically creates a new key for every data unit passed between the access point and the client, making it drastically more secure than the previous system.

However, TKIP could only be implemented onto existing WEP-enabled devices via firmware updates. As a result, the WPA’s core component also relied on elements used in the WEP system, which were proven easily exploitable.

It didn’t take too long for public demonstrations of WPA’s vulnerability to intrusions to begin. While some successfully demonstrated breaching WPA’s security through direct attacks, others targeted the Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS), a supplementary system rolled out with WPA. Although intended to facilitate linking devices to modern access points, WPS ended up as the weakest link of the WPA protocol.

What Is WPA2?

The second generation of the WPA security protocol was designed to serve the same purpose as its predecessor while correcting flaws and providing more security benefits. It was officially introduced in 2006.

WPA2 introduced a new protocol to replace the somewhat vulnerable TKIP system. The Counter Mode Cipher Block Chaining Message Authentication Code Protocol, or CCMP for short, is stronger and significantly more reliable than TKIP. As a result, this security protocol makes it more challenging for hackers to detect patterns.

CCMP relies on an algorithm used by the U.S. government to protect classified data called AES. AES, or the Advanced Encryption System, provides message authenticity and integrity verification.

Although CCMP was implemented to replace TKIP, the former wasn’t completely eliminated from the WPA2 system. Namely, TKIP is still preserved as a fallback system, allowing interoperability with WPA.

While undoubtedly more secure and advanced, the WPA2 security protocol isn’t impenetrable. Modern WPA2-enabled access points are still vulnerable to attacks. But it should be noted that these attacks primarily concern enterprise-level networks and typically don’t have any implications for home network security.

To perpetuate such an attack, an individual would have to gain access to a secured Wi-Fi network, obtain the necessary keys, and then target the other devices on the network. This process would take anywhere between two and 14 hours of sustained effort and a powerful computer. Still, these attacks remain a legitimate security concern.

WEP vs WPA

The main difference between the WEP and WPA protocols is how they handle security keys and authorize users.

WEP generates the same key for each authorized system. This means that intruders can easily create an encryption key matching the one the secure network uses. To address this vulnerability, WPA introduced the TKIP system, which continuously changes the system’s encryption key.

WPA vs WPA2

Your wireless router will likely include both the WPA and the WPA2 option. These wireless security protocols share the same goal – protecting your Wi-Fi network. But WPA2 demands more processing power to achieve this goal, meaning older routers might not be capable of supporting this protocol.

Of course, the increased processing power isn’t for nothing. In fact, it makes WPA2 more secure than its predecessor, primarily due to the introduction of the AES algorithm. In addition, most modern access points come with the necessary hardware to support a WPA2 protocol without a problem.

WEP vs WPA vs WPA2

After discussing the three security protocols in detail, let’s look at how they compare.

The Pros and Cons of WEP

The only advantage of WEP is that it’s a better option than not having any security protocol, although not notably. Simply put, anyone who would like to breach this protocol would probably be successful.

Naturally, this advantage is significantly outnumbered by the system’s flaws:

  • Plagued by security vulnerabilities
  • Fixed-key encryption
  • Only 64-bit and 128-bit encryption keys
  • Challenging to configure

The Pros and Cons of WPA

WPA managed to address some of the WEP’s most prominent security vulnerabilities, which is its most significant advantage over its predecessor. This was accomplished by using the following:

  • TKIP encryption method is
  • 256-bit encryption keys

Nevertheless, this security protocol shares similar vulnerabilities to WEP. In addition, TKIP can also be exploited if rolled out onto WEP devices.

The Pros and Cons of WPA2

WPA2 offers many advantages:

  • Addresses its predecessor’s security flaws
  • Uses the most powerful encryption method
  • 256-bit encryption key
  • Required for use on all Wi-Fi-certified products

Like its predecessors, WPA2 isn’t completely free of flaws:

  • Contains some network security vulnerabilities
  • Needs significant processing power

What’s the Best Wi-Fi Security Protocol?

Despite its flaws, WPA2 is generally considered the best option compared to WPA and WEP. It’s the most recent widely available security protocol, and it should be implemented in all your Wi-Fi networks. On top of that, you should ensure to disable the Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS) for extra security.

Resources

 

Frequently Asked Questions

Which security type is my Wi-Fi?

Knowing your Wi-Fi encryption protocol is crucial for your network’s security. If you have an older protocol in place, your network is more likely to fall victim to a cyber-attack or a hacking attempt. Here’s how to identify your Wi-Fi encryption type across all your devices.

If you use a Windows 10 PC, follow these steps:

  • Click on the “Wi-Fi Connection” icon in your taskbar.

  • Select “Properties” under your Wi-Fi connection.

  • Scroll down to the “Properties” section.

  • Find the “Security Type” and read your Wi-Fi protocol.

MacOS users can find out their Wi-Fi security type in two simple steps:

  • Long-press the “Option” key.

  • Press the Wi-Fi icon in your toolbar

For Android devices, do the following:

  • Launch “Settings.”

  • Locate the “Wi-Fi” tab.

  • Tap the router you’re connected to.

  • Scroll down to the “Encryption type” section.

For now, iPhone users can’t check their Wi-Fi security within their devices.

What is WPA3?

WPA3 is the third generation of the Wi-Fi Protected Access protocol, introduced in 2018. Although more secure than its predecessor, WPA3 hasn’t been widely adopted yet since using this protocol typically requires costly upgrades.

However, WPA3 is undoubtedly the future of Wi-Fi security. Namely, it takes an individualized data encryption approach. When a new device signs up, it doesn’t have to use a shared password. WPA3 employs a Near Field Communication (NFC) tag or a QR code to grant access to the network.

Next, when a device is connecting to a WPA3-backed router, both devices will communicate to verify authentication and connection. This way, even if the user’s password is weak, WPA3 will create a secure handshake through the Simultaneous Authentication of Equals protocol.

WPA3 also allows offline users to only guess the password once, forcing them to be physically present each time they want to guess the password. As a result, the network is protected against brute force attacks, which use the trial-and-error method to guess the password.

Do I need VPN if I use Wi-Fi security protocols?

Although not obligatory, a VPN can significantly increase the standard protection provided by regular Wi-Fi security protocols. They will work together, with the security protocol protecting your local network from intrusions and the VPN encrypting all your outgoing web traffic. In addition, using a VPN will allow you to do the following:

  • Safely browse the internet on a public Wi-Fi
  • Access content online that’s previously been geo-blocked

 

Author: Tibor Moes

Author: Tibor Moes

Founder & Chief Editor at SoftwareLab

Tibor is a Dutch engineer and entrepreneur. He has tested security software since 2014.

Over the years, he has tested most leading antivirus software for Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS, as well as many VPN providers.

He uses Norton to protect his devices, CyberGhost for his privacy, and Dashlane for his passwords.

This website is hosted on a Digital Ocean server via Cloudways and is built with DIVI on WordPress.

You can find him on LinkedIn or contact him here.

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