Securing a WiFi Access Point is very important as if it is left insecure, someone can steal your network bandwidth, can hack into your system or do illegal activities through your network. WiFi protocols are standards which have been created to streamline WiFi communication in a secure and safe way. WiFi protocols encrypt data when it is transferred within the network. The person without the decryption key can’t connect to the network and read communication information.
Some of the famous WiFi protocols include WEP, WPA, WPA2 (Personal and Enterprise). In this article, we will discuss about the technical differences between these protocols and when each should be used.
All these wireless standards have been created to keep your home network safe. Each of these protocols has their own advantages and disadvantages. It’s up to the user to select a suitable protocol. This article is exactly about knowing which protocol to use at which time.
One thing to keep in mind is that the wireless technology is inherently insecure as we can’t control the spread of wireless signals in the air. That is why it’s important to select the best security protocol which will minimize the risk of being hacked or data leakage.
WEP vs WPA vs WPA2 Personal vs WPA2 Enterprise
Instead of discussing about each security protocol, we will discuss about three factors and compare the protocols according to these factors. The factors include security, authentication and performance.
Security and Encryption
WEP and WPA use RC4 algorithm for encryption of network data. RC4 is inherently insecure especially in case of WEP which uses small keys and key management. Since WEP sends passwords in plain text across the network, it is quite simple to crack the network using network packet sniffers.
WPA was developed as a temporary alternative to WEP. The secure form of WPA uses TKIP encryption which encrypts passwords for network communication. Although it is also weaker form of security but it’s far better than WEP.
WPA2 was designed for network communication with complete security in mind. It uses AES-CCMP encryption which theoretically may take hundreds of years for cracking. All communication packets sent and received through WPA2 are encrypted.
While WPA2 is the best form of security, you may use WPA where devices are not compatible with WPA2 and use WEP as a last resort as it is still better than the network being completely open.
Authentication is an important part of wireless network communication. It determines whether a user is allowed to communicate with the network or not. All three security protocols, WEP, WPA and WPA2 use PSK (Pre-shared Key) for authentication. While WEP uses simple PSK key, WPA and WPA2 combine it with other encryption methods like WPA-PSK and EAP-PSK to make the authentication process more secure. The standard which WPA and WPA2 follow for authentication is 802.1x/EAP.
WPA and WPA2 use 256-bit encryption for authentication which is quite secure. But since the users tend to have difficulty setting such a long passwords, the passphrase can be between 8 and 65 characters which is combined with EAP for encryption and authentication.
Speed and Performance
The first thought over speed and performance is that since WEP uses simple authentication and security, it should be the fastest. But this is totally different from the factual figures. Instead of using more encryption and security, WPA2 seems to be the highest performing security protocol of all. This is because it allows more bandwidth to be transferred between the Wireless Access Point and wireless device. You may check out the following video which explains about an experiment of comparing speed and performance of these three protocols, WEP, WPA and WPA2.
WEP, WPA and WPA2 Comparison Table
Here’s the comparison table for you to easily check the differences between WEP, WPA and WPA2
RC4 and TKIP
PSK 128 & 256 bit
AES-PSK 256 bit
My final verdict is that if you have a modern device, you should almost always use WPA2 and good encryption and authentication algorithms as this will make your wireless network more secure. But if you have an old device which does not support WPA2, then you should go with WPA with high encryption and authentication. The third option is to go with WPA and relatively low quality encryption and authentication. I would suggest WEP as a selection of last resort as it’s still better than keeping the wireless network wide open without security.