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WPA's Insecure Legacy

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A coming upgrade for the 802.11 specification that is being promoted by the Wi-Fi Alliance cannot be supported by the majority of wireless LAN equipment already in use, prompting concern among analysts and vendors that older infrastructure could still be used as a backdoor into supposedly secure new networks.

WiFi Protected Access (WPA) is being promoted by the WiFi Alliance as a solution to the security issues that have dogged the adoption of 802.11, especially in the enterprise (see 802.11 Security Issues Sorted?). WPA is a security system comprising the elements already fixed and agreed upon by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc. (IEEE) security task group, including: Temporal Key Integrity Protocol (TKIP) and Counter Mode with CBC-MAC Protocol (CCMP) for over-the-air encryption, and access control standard for user authentication and encryption key distribution. It is supposed to be more secure than the current WEP (wired equivalent privacy) security standard.

Products incorporating WPA are now being tested and should be certified and available in May. However, while the move is a step in the right direction, WPA will be of no benefit to anyone using existing 802.11b (11-Mbit/s over 2.4GHz) networks. The technology can only be incorporated in new 802.11b, 802.11a (54-Mbit/s over 5GHz) and 802.11g (54-Mbit/s over 2.4GHz) products. This is leading to concerns about enterprises mixing newly ratified WPA products with original hardware, as the network can only be as secure as the weakest access point.

“There are issues with WPA backwards compatibility with some products,” confirms Ian Keene, vice president of telecommunications research at Gartner Inc. “If an enterprise or home user went for a single vendor solution then we don’t expect too many problems, but it is a problem for interoperability between different vendors.”

Such issues could cause a major headache for the growing number of enterprises rolling out wireless LAN networks to their employees (see 802.11 WLAN Shipments Double and Europe Set for WLAN Boom). “It is not going to be possible to buy WiFi-Alliance-tested WPA products that are backwards compatible with every previous product, and that could be a big obstacle,” says Keene, adding that he expects to see compatibility problems with the current crop of wireless LAN cards on the market.

The vendors Unstrung spoke to claim to be tackling the compatibility issue. “We are looking into it because there are certainly areas that need to be resolved,” says Proxim Corp.'s (Nasdaq: PROX) solutions marketing manager, Jan Buis. “We are aware of this problem. Security is the hottest issue in wireless LAN at the moment, and as a vendor we must make it our highest priority.”

“We are trying to educate the enterprise user by telling them about these issues,” comments 3Com Corp.’s (Nasdaq: COMS) international segment manager for wireless and security, Angelo Lamme. “A network, after all, can only be as secure as the weakest link.”

While no enterprise is immune to the compatibility problems, both vendors point out that it is the latest adopters of wireless LAN, rather than the earlier, tech-savvy enterprises, that require the greatest amounts of education as to the potential for security holes in the network. “The early adopters of wireless LAN accept some of the insecurities that exist today,” says Buis. “The primary reason why new security features have entered this market is because of the number of customers unwilling to use wireless LAN at present.”

In the short term, at least, vendors in this space face the task of informing users of the pitfalls involved in mixing old and new infrastructure. “This is an ongoing problem,” concludes Gartner’s Keene. “We expect it to be resolved in the next two years, but it isn’t going to happen overnight. It really depends on how well vendors can work with each other to help iron out the problems.”

These latest concerns will do little to combat the growing fear of security problems with enterprise wireless LAN use. In a recent Unstrung poll of readers, 72 percent of respondents perceived security as the major drag on wireless LAN deployment within corporations (see Poll: WLAN Has Limited Life). Recently, RSA Security added fuel to the fire by highlighting the ease with which corporate networks can be hacked (see Hackers Crack London WLANs).

— Justin Springham, Senior Editor, Europe, Unstrung

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