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Wi-Fi Alliance tries again on wireless security

WPA to succeed where WEP failed?

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The Wi-Fi Alliance aims to make it easier to build robust security into wireless LANS with the announcement yesterday of a successor to the flawed WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) protocol.

Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) uses a higher level of encryption and brings in dynamic key exchange functions absent with WEP. WPA is designed to work with existing products and is expected to first appear in Wi-Fi certified products during the first quarter of next year.

Most vendors are expected to offer firmware and software updates for Wi-Fi certified products currently in use in order to bring in WPA. Use of the protocol will be mandatory in products certified by the Wi-Fi Alliance from August next year.

WPA is based on a subset of features found in the 802.11i Robust Security Network amendment to the existing wireless LAN standard.

802.11i is not expected to be ratified till the back end of next year and the industry can't afford to wait that long, Kirk Alchorne, European director at the Wi-Fi Alliance and an access product manager at Nokia, told us.

Alchorne was candid in admitting concerns about the security of wireless LANS were hold back deployment.

Virtual Private Networks offer a way to secure 802.11b or 802.11a wireless LANS but they impose a performance overhead and the approach is not suited to everyone, he said. Alchorne added that security appliances (from the likes of Bluesocket) or proprietary extensions to WEP fail to take interoperability and standardisation, hence the need for WPA.

WEP, which is relatively easy to circumvent using tools such as AirSnort, is often not used at all - as this week's second WorldWide WarDrive is expected to confirm. It is better than nothing, though, and the advice from the Wi-Fi Alliance is to continue to use WEP until WPA comes along.

Alchorne said that making WPA far easier to implement and more inherently secure than WEP will encourage wider deployment for WPA than its insecure predecessor every achieved. ®

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