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Wi-Fi, an abbreviation for wireless fidelity, is used to refer generically to any type of wireless network based on the IEEE 802.11 standard. Variations include 802.11b, 802.11g and 802.11a – a 54 Mbps technology that’s a newer and emerging favourite.

The Wi-Fi Alliance, composed of leading wireless and equipment vendors, certifies interoperability of 802.11 products and makes sure that all Wi-Fi equipment can work together. Only products that pass Wi-Fi alliance testing are labelled "Wi-Fi Certified" (a registered trademark).

Wi-Fi products are easy to set-up, access and use. But because the standard was designed with limited security capabilities - basically, to foil casual eavesdropping rather than prevent more powerful forms of attack - it's essential for managers and IT professionals to recognise that Wi-Fi is subject to well-known and well-documented security vulnerabilities and weaknesses.

This IT guide provides basic Wi-Fi concepts and discusses important security measures for proper deployment and use of wireless networking technology. Topics include:

» Realities of wireless security

Review the state of current Wi-Fi technology, and learn about weaknesses in Wi-Fi's Wireless Encryption Protocol (WEP) and other wireless security schemes.

» Wireless security options and add-ons

Understand different security methodologies and technologies that are often used to bolster or replace WEP including more secure forms of key exchange and encryption, more secure protocols, virtual private networks, addressing schemes, authentication servers and so forth.

» Finding the right security model

Review how particular user needs map to proper wireless security solutions.

» Planning for the future

Learn about future developments and directions for Wireless LANs including a look at the emerging 802.11i wireless standard and the 802.1x authentication standard.

Wireless networking is more vulnerable to security problems than wired forms of networking. The encryption methods of Wi-Fi and the open-air nature of wireless communications mean Wi-Fi communications are easily intercepted and sometimes compromised.

But by employing additional forms of security, managing Wi-Fi's own capabilities to maximise security and planning for future security enhancements, savvy managers and IT professionals can make good, safe and effective use of this technology in their day-to-day operations without incurring undue security risks.

In the 802.11 standard, WEP is defined as "protecting authorized users of a WLAN from casual eavesdropping." As such, WEP is not a terribly strong form of protection and is subject to numerous exploits based on vulnerabilities and weaknesses. Numerous papers, in fact, describe in detail how WEP can be defeated. Likewise, tools that exploit WEP's weaknesses are widely available online.

WEP is based on a stream cipher called RC4, which is a symmetric encryption algorithm. The same key used to encrypt WEP traffic is also used to decrypt that same traffic; for that reason, that key is called a shared key. Because stream ciphers encrypt ongoing streams of data, they're easy and efficient to implement in hardware. But any given stream of communications should be encrypted with a unique key that is never reused to avoid potential compromise of intercepted traffic. The problem is that WEP's design includes no provision for managing keys between sender and receiver when data must be resent (as will often be the case in wireless communications, in which packets are routinely lost or dropped in transit).

WEP designers tried to circumvent key management by appending an IV (initialization vector) -- a 24-bit number to a common 40-bit shared secret key -- so that many 64-bit keys based on the combination of both numbers could be shared. (The IV is shared in the clear, so that partners need only share the 40-bit secret key.) But because there are only 224 IVs available, and no mechanism to change the secret key when all IVs are used up, reuse of keys is inevitable.