written by: Eli Misel•edited by: Lamar Stonecypher•updated: 7/19/2010
When setting up a wireless network for your home or business, configuring wireless security is a feature often overlooked. Unfortunately this allows malicious users to gain access to your network and possibly obtain confidential information. WEP and WPA are two options available for security.
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What is WEP?
Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) is an older encryption algorithm used to secure transmitted data across wireless networks. WEP uses a security code chosen during configuration called a WEP key, which uses a sequence of hexadecimal digits. This digit sequence must match on all devices trying to communicate on the wireless network. WEP keys can be formed in different lengths depending on the type of WEP encryption being utilized.
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Advantages/Disadvantages of using WEP
Several weaknesses have been discovered using WEP encryption that allows an attacker using readily available software to crack the key within minutes. WEP encryption uses a shared key authentication and sends the same key with data packets being transmitted across the wireless network. If malicious users have enough time and gather enough data they can eventually piece together their own key. Another disadvantage to using WEP encryption is that if the master key needs to be changed, it will have to be manually changed on all devices connected to the network. This can be a tedious task if you have many devices connected to your network.
While WEP cracking is possible, the skill required is beyond most users. One advantage to using WEP is that when users happen to see your network during wireless detection, they will most likely be discouraged since it will require a key. This makes it clear to the user that they are not welcome. Another advantage that WEP offers is interoperability, since all wireless devices support basic WEP encryption. This can be useful when trying to use older devices that need wireless connectivity.
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What is WPA?
Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) is a much stronger encryption algorithm created specifically by the networking industry to mitigate the problems associated with WEP. Like WEP, WPA uses the same encryption/decryption method with all devices on the wireless network, but does not use the same master key. Devices connected to a WPA encrypted wireless network use temporary keys that are dynamically changed to communicate.
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Advantages/Disadvantages of using WPA
WPA uses much stronger encryption algorithms than its predecessor. WPA uses a Temporary Key Integrity Protocol (TKIP), which dynamically changes the key as data packets are sent across the network. Since the key is constantly changing, it makes cracking the key much more difficult than that of WEP. If the need arises to change the global key, WPA will automatically advertise the new key to all devices on the network without having to manually change them.
Disadvantages to using WPA are few, with the biggest issue being incompatibility with legacy hardware and older operating systems. WPA also has a larger performance overhead and increases data packet size leading to longer transmission.
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If possible, you should choose WPA over WEP when configuring your wireless network. It provides much better security and is the newer standard. If you are unable to configure your network with WPA, having WEP encryption is better than having no encryption at all. Securing your network will stop malicious users from stealing bandwidth from your network or gaining access to private information.