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What Is Wired Equivalent Privacy?

Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) is a security protocol designed to provide wireless networks with a level of protection comparable to that of a wired network. However, WEP has significant vulnerabilities, making it outdated in today's cybersecurity landscape. Understanding its flaws can help us appreciate modern encryption standards. How secure is your wireless network against contemporary threats?
G. Wiesen
G. Wiesen

Wired equivalent privacy (WEP) is a form of wireless security protection initially implemented in early wireless standards, particularly those using 802.11 standards. This form of protection basically uses an encryption key to protect data sent to and from the wireless network, preventing unauthorized users from accessing the network. The method used in WEP encryption, however, is not ideal and has been shown to be far too open to attacks by hackers, allowing them to ultimately falsify authentication. Wired equivalent privacy has largely been replaced by Wi-Fi protected access (WPA) protocols that are more secure and can better protect a wireless network.

The primary purpose of wired equivalent privacy protocols is to protect the users of a wireless network from interference or attack by unauthorized users. Wireless networks are, innately, more open to attack than wired networks, since wired networks are easily controlled by physically limiting the number of systems connected to them. With the proliferation of wireless technology through the 802.11 standards, new protocols had to be developed to easily and efficiently protect wireless systems. The primary method of protection in early 802.11 wireless devices was the implementation of wired equivalent privacy.

Man holding computer
Man holding computer

WEP basically works by generating a key that must be possessed by any computer system that connects to the network. This key is protected through encryption, but is also utilized by any data that travels away from the wireless system. Individual packets of data sent out by a router or other system connected to a wireless network protected by wired equivalent privacy include an encrypted form of the key that secures that network. This encrypted version of the key essentially consists of the key itself, as well as other data generated and transmitted to help keep the key secure.

The major flaw in this type of privacy, however, is that this secondary data is too limited in size, and so repeated patterns become inevitable for any system. A hacker can intercept packets sent by the system, and even cause additional packets to be sent, to look for these repeated patterns. Once these are found, then it becomes quite simple for a program to quickly and accurately decrypt the key and gain the authentication code needed to access the wireless system. Newer wireless systems, including later versions of 802.11 standards, utilize WPA and similar methods to protect these networks, which allow for more diverse keys that cannot be decrypted nearly as easily as wired equivalent privacy.

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