Pin Me

Wifi Standards: What is WEP and WPA?

written by: Daniel Barros•edited by: Lamar Stonecypher•updated: 6/12/2009

This article takes an in-depth, technical look at the WEP and WPA wifi encryptions - find out which one is right for you inside.

  • slide 1 of 1

    WEP vs. WPA

    Got a wireless network at home? Had it installed by GeekSquad or another company doing that sort of work? You may not know this, but wireless networks have gotten increasingly more complex in the last few years. Having someone else install a wireless network for you is simply not the best solution in a day and age where newer houses come pre-wired and older houses offer the choice of a wireless network that is just as (if not more) protected than the wired network.

    The question then becomes - how does a wireless network actually work? Your remote computer (be it a laptop or your desktop) sends a signal to acknowledge the presence of the router in your home. Once this is done (via radio signals), that PC becomes essentially tethered to the network. From here on, it works like a wired network. In the networking chain of events, your PC sends a radio signal to the router requesting a website's information, your router turns to your modem requesting the same information, your modem then accesses the correct server for the website obtaining the information, and the whole process runs in reverse until a radio signal is sent to your PC with the correct information. All this of course, is at the speed of light.

    The radio signals are usually pretty versatile. New network standards (802.11n) usually are able to transmit at 140 megabits per second and through all sorts of materials found in your home. Typically however, bathroom tiles are the worst offenders for loss of signal from the router to the computers.

    Now, let's get to the real meat of the subject at hand, wireless encryption. As you may know, wireless networks function using radio signals that operate on three different frequencies, all with the same 802.11 standard. The most important component in establishing a competent wireless network is ensuring that you have it encrypted. A cipher is a algorithim used to encode and decode an encrypted stream. Your data stream is encrypted by taking those 0s and 1s and passing them through the algorithm before transmission. For the computer on the other end to gain access, he has to have the same cipher and the same passkey to decrypt what was sent.

    WEP (wired equivalent privacy) was the first-generation encryption of this type. Using this exact method of ciphering the data that was being transmitted from your router, your computer required a simple 10 digit passcode (later, more digits were added) to decode the cipher. However, the WEP encryption has become obsolete in today's modern Wi-Fi world.

    In today's society, the modern hacker has a field day with WEP encryption, but chances are, he won't even bother to attack a house with WEP. He'll just enjoy jumping on the connections of the millions of Americans who live without network encryption and wonder why their internet seems so slow on certain days. Therefore, to combat the hackers of today as well as the newer generations, the Wi-Fi alliance released a new version of their protocol - the WPA protocol.

    Using a specially made protocol, the Wi-Fi alliance went to work preventing so called "Brute Force" attacks - or attacks with sophisticated hacker programs that can tear down the wireless protection. The new WPA (Wi-Fi protected access) standard has become a success in the modern fight against your local hacker-wannabe. No longer will the proverbial "kid next door" be accessing your internet for free. Most importantly, in this age of increasing identity theft, strong encryption provides a redundant method to protect your browsing history.

    To put this in simple terms, if you have a router that was made before 2005, it's time for an upgrade for two reasons. First, newer routers support greater speeds and ranges, I saw this phenomenon when we upgraded to a new D-Link router in my house. All of a sudden, the second story had Wi-Fi access to the internet. Secondly, newer routers support the Wi-Fi Alliance compliant WPA2 technology - a variant on the original WPA that manages to secure your network even further.

    If your router was made after 2005, go ahead and take a look at your security settings - you may find (as I did) that you're running WEP, or even worse, nothing. The best advice I can give you to prevent a hacker's attack is to make sure your password is as random as possible (there are both password checkers and random password generators you can find online) and to make sure that your network is fully secure with the latest technology. Next time GeekSquad offers you to install your router - feel free to tell them no.