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What are the Key Features of WPA Security?

The following security features are included in the WPA standard:

These features are discussed below.

WPA addresses most of the known WEP vulnerabilities and is primarily intended for wireless infrastructure networks as found in the enterprise. This infrastructure includes stations, access points, and authentication servers (typically Remote Authentication Dial-In User Service servers, called RADIUS servers). The RADIUS server holds (or has access to) user credentials (for example, user names and passwords) and authenticates wireless users before they gain access to the network.

The strength of WPA comes from an integrated sequence of operations that encompass 802.1X/EAP authentication and sophisticated key management and encryption techniques. Its major operations include:

WPA Authentication:
Enterprise-level User Authentication via 802.1x/EAP and RADIUS

Figure 2-3

IEEE 802.1x offers an effective framework for authenticating and controlling user traffic to a protected network, as well as providing a vehicle for dynamically varying data encryption keys via EAP from a RADIUS server, for example. This framework enables using a central authentication server, which employs mutual authentication, so that a rogue wireless user does not join the network.

Note that 802.1x does not provide the actual authentication mechanisms. When using 802.1x, the EAP type, such as Transport Layer Security (EAP-TLS) or EAP Tunneled Transport Layer Security (EAP-TTLS), defines how the authentication takes place.

Note: For environments with a RADIUS infrastructure, WPA supports Extensible Authentication Protocol (EAP). For environments without a RADIUS infrastructure, WPA supports the use of a pre-shared key.

Together, these technologies provide a framework for strong user authentication.

Windows XP implements 802.1x natively, and several NETGEAR switch and wireless access point products support 802.1x.

Figure 2-4

The access point (AP) sends Beacon Frames with WPA information elements to the stations in the service set. Information elements include the required authentication method (802.1x or Pre-shared key) and the preferred cipher suite (WEP, TKIP, or AES). Probe Responses (AP to station) and Association Requests (station to AP) also contain WPA information elements.

  1. Initial 802.1x communications begin with an unauthenticated supplicant (that is, client device) attempting to connect with an authenticator (that is, 802.11 access point). The client sends an EAP-start message. This begins a series of message exchanges to authenticate the client.
  2. The access point replies with an EAP-request identity message.
  3. The client sends an EAP-response packet containing the identity to the authentication server. The access point responds by enabling a port for passing only EAP packets from the client to an authentication server located on the wired side of the access point. The access point blocks all other traffic, such as HTTP, DHCP, and POP3 packets, until the access point can verify the client's identity using an authentication server (for example, RADIUS).
  4. The authentication server uses a specific authentication algorithm to verify the client's identity. This could be through the use of digital certificates or some other EAP authentication type.
  5. The authentication server will either send an accept or reject message to the access point.
  6. The access point sends an EAP-success packet (or reject packet) to the client.
  7. If the authentication server accepts the client, then the access point will transition the client's port to an authorized state and forward additional traffic.

The important part to know at this point is that the software supporting the specific EAP type resides on the authentication server and within the operating system or application "supplicant" software on the client devices. The access point acts as a "pass through" for 802.1x messages, which means that you can specify any EAP type without needing to upgrade an 802.1x-compliant access point. As a result, you can update the EAP authentication type to such devices as token cards (Smart Cards), Kerberos, one-time passwords, certificates, and public key authentication or as newer types become available and your requirements for security change.

WPA Data Encryption Key Management

With 802.1x, the re-keying of unicast encryption keys is optional. Additionally, 802.11 and 802.1x provide no mechanism to change the global encryption key used for multicast and broadcast traffic. With WPA, re-keying of both unicast and global encryption keys is required.

For the unicast encryption key, the Temporal Key Integrity Protocol (TKIP) changes the key for every frame, and the change is synchronized between the wireless client and the wireless access point (AP). For the global encryption key, WPA includes a facility (the Information Element) for the wireless AP to advertise the changed key to the connected wireless clients.

If configured to implement dynamic key exchange, the 802.1x authentication server can return session keys to the access point along with the accept message. The access point uses the session keys to build, sign and encrypt an EAP key message that is sent to the client immediately after sending the success message. The client can then use contents of the key message to define applicable encryption keys. In typical 802.1x implementations, the client can automatically change encryption keys as often as necessary to minimize the possibility of eavesdroppers having enough time to crack the key in current use.

Temporal Key Integrity Protocol (TKIP). 

WPA uses TKIP to provide important data encryption enhancements including a per-packet key mixing function, a message integrity check (MIC) named Michael, an extended initialization vector (IV) with sequencing rules, and a re-keying mechanism. TKIP also provides for the following:


With 802.11 and WEP, data integrity is provided by a 32-bit integrity check value (ICV) that is appended to the 802.11 payload and encrypted with WEP. Although the ICV is encrypted, you can use cryptanalysis to change bits in the encrypted payload and update the encrypted ICV without being detected by the receiver.

With WPA, a method known as Michael specifies a new algorithm that calculates an 8-byte message integrity code (MIC) using the calculation facilities available on existing wireless devices. The MIC is placed between the data portion of the IEEE 802.11 frame and the 4-byte ICV. The MIC field is encrypted together with the frame data and the ICV.

Michael also provides replay protection. A new frame counter in the IEEE 802.11 frame is used to prevent replay attacks.

AES Support. 

One of the encryption methods supported by WPA, besides TKIP, is the advanced encryption standard (AES), although AES support will not be required initially for Wi-Fi certification. This is viewed as the optimal choice for security-conscious organizations, but the problem with AES is that it requires a fundamental redesign of the NIC's hardware in both the station and the access point. TKIP was a pragmatic compromise that allows organizations to deploy better security while AES-capable equipment is being designed, manufactured, and incrementally deployed.

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