;Security in Wireless Local Area Networks
；T. Andrew Yang Yasir Zahur
Following the widespread use of the Internet, especially the World Wide Web since 1995, wireless networking has become a buzz word at the beginning of the new millennium. New terms such as wireless communications, wireless local area networks (WLANs), wireless web, wireless application protocols (WAP), wireless transactions, wireless multimedia applications, etc. have emerged and become common vocabulary for computer and information professionals. Among the emerging wireless technologies, WLANs have gained much popularity in various sectors, including business offices, government buildings, schools, and residential homes. The set of IEEE 802.11 protocols (especially 11a, 11b, and 11g), nicknamed wi-fi, have become the
standard protocols for WLANs since late 1990s.
Increasing number of 802.11 based WLANs have been deployed in various types of locations, including homes, schools, airports, business offices, government buildings, military facilities, coffee shops, book stores, as well as many other venues. One of the primary advantages offered by WLAN is its ability to provide untethered connectivity to portable devices, such as wireless laptops and PDAs. In some remote communities, WLANs are implemented as a viable last-mile technology , which link homes and offices in isolated locations to the global Internet.
The further widespread deployment of WLANs, however, depends on whether secure
; This paper was adapted from one of the authors‟ earlier publications: Wireless LAN Security and Laboratory
Designs. The Journal of Computing Sciences in Colleges, Volume 19 Issue 3. Jan. 2004. ； The authors may be contacted by sending an email to YANG@CL.UH.EDU.
networking can be achieved. In order for critical data and services to be delivered over WLANs, reasonable level of security must be guaranteed. The WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) protocol,
originally proposed as the security mechanism of 802.11 WLANs, is known to be easily cracked by commonly available hacking software. WLANs suffer from various security vulnerabilities such as eavesdropping, resource stealing, denial of service attacks, static WEP keys, absence of mutual authentication and session hijack attack, etc. To deploy a secure WLAN, it is necessary to implement an alternative security mechanism, such as SSL, VPN, Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA), or the being-developed IEEE 802.11i protocols.
In this paper, the security aspects of WLANs are studied. We first give an overview of the various types of WLANs and the respective vulnerabilities of various protocols, followed by a discussion of alternative security mechanisms that may be used to protect WLANs. 2. Types of WLANs
The 1999 version of the 802.11 standard  defines three types of wireless networks: IBSS, BSS, and ESS.
1) Independent Basic Service Set (IBSS), i.e., ad-hoc network: “An ad-hoc
network is a network composed solely of stations within mutual
communication range of each other via the wireless medium.” 
As shown in Figure 1, in an ad-hoc wireless LAN, end nodes communicate
without any access point and thus without any connection to a wired network. Node 2, for instance, may communicate directly with node 1 and node 3. Node 3 and node 1, however, cannot have direct communication with each other since they are outside each other‟s communication range. An ad hoc network is
typically created in a spontaneous manner, allowing non-technical users of the
wireless devices to create and dissolve the ad-hoc network conveniently. It is useful in allowing quick setting-up of a wireless network among end users.
Figure 1 Ad-hoc Mode
As noted in the 1999 edition of the 802.11 specifications , “The principal
distinguishing characteristic of an ad hoc network is its limited temporal and spatial extent.” To achieve a more permanent wireless network, with larger
communication range, infrastructure modes (see below) are often used.
2) Basic Service Set (BSS): A BSS is “a set of stations controlled by a single coordination
A BSS (commonly referred to as an infrastructure network) consists of a single access point
and a number of end nodes as shown in Figure 2. All the communication between any two nodes has to pass through the AP. The coverage area is greatly increased as compared to an IBSS. Mobile nodes A, B and C, for example, cannot communicate with each other via ad-hoc mode,
because they are outside each other‟s communication range. However, by communicating
through the access point, they effectively form a WLAN for data communications. The access point behaves in a way similar to a hub in a star topology network.
Figure 2. Basic Service Set
3) Extended Service Set (ESS): An ESS is “a set of one or more interconnected basic
service sets (BSSs) and integrated local area networks (LANs) that appears as a single BSS
to the logical link control layer at any station associated with one of those BSSs”. 
As shown in Figure 3, an ESS consists of multiple BSSs each having a single access point. The access point in each BSS is connected to a distribution system that is usually a wired Ethernet network. An ESS is a hybrid of wireless and wired LANs, and extends a wireless station‟s connectivity beyond its local access point.
Figure 3. Extended Service Set (ESS)
With the exception of ad-hoc wireless networks, a WLAN typically consists of a central connection point called the Access Point (AP), which transmits data between different nodes of a
WLAN and, in most cases, serves as the only link between the WLAN and the wired networks. 3. The IEEE802.11 Protocols and Built-In Security Features
Between 1997 and 2001, the IEEE had released a series of 802.11 WLAN standards , some of which are summarized in Table 1. The first standard, 802.11, was first released in 1997 and revised two years later. The 802.11a and 802.11b standards were released in Sept. 1999. A new standard, 802.11g, was released near the end of 2001, as a high-rate extension to 802.11b.
Depending on the specific standards, the IEEE 802.11 WLAN may run as fast as 2Mbps at 2.4GHZ, or 54Mbps at 5GHZ frequency. Newer wireless standards, currently being developed by various IEEE task groups, may bring the speed of WLANs up to the range of 200-300 Mbps.
Standards Description / Dates of Approval
Data rates up to 2Mbps in 2.4GHz ISM band / July 1997: first release; 1999:
Data rates up to 54Mbps in 5GHz UNII band / September 1999 802.11a
Data rates up to 11Mbps in 2.4GHz ISM band / September 1999 802.11b
High-rate extension to 802.11b allowing for data rates up to 54 Mbps in the 2.4-
GHz ISM band / Nov 2001: Draft standard adopted; June 2003: Full 802.11g
Table 1. The IEEE WLAN Standards
In addition to the major 802.11 standards, as listed in Table 1, there exist other IEEE standards or recommended practices related to the 802.11 protocols, such as 802.11f and 802.11h. There also exist several on-going task groups working on developing protocols related to the performance and/or security of 802.11 protocols, such as 802.11e, and 802.11i. The standards
1and drafts are available on line from the IEEE web site.
？ 802.11e (QoS for 802.11): The goal of the IEEE 802.11e task group is to enhance the 802.11
Medium Access Control (MAC) layer, in order to improve and manage quality of service
(QoS), and to enhance security and authentication mechanisms. These enhancements should
provide the quality required for services such as IP telephony and video streaming. ？ 802.11f (IAPP): The IEEE 802.11f, released in July 2003, documents IEEE‟s recommended
practice for multi-vendor access point interoperability via an Inter-Access Point Protocol
(IAPP) across distribution systems supporting IEEE 802.11 operation.
？ 802.11h (Power management extension for Europe): 802.11h is an amendment to the IEEE
802.11 protocol. Its goal is to provide spectrum and transmit power management extensions
in the 5GHz band in Europe. The standard was released in Oct. 2003.
？ 802.11i (the forthcoming 802.11 security standard): The goal of the IEEE 802.11i task group
is to enhance the 802.11 Medium Access Control (MAC) layer with security and
authentication mechanisms. The current status of that task group is available at IEEE grouper
2site. As of April 2004, the group is working on draft 7.0 of the standard. We will discuss
802.11i in section 5.4.
3.1. Built-in 802.11 Security Features
The security features provided in 802.11 are as follows:
1) SSID (Service Set Identifier): SSID acts as a WLAN identifier. Thus all devices trying to
connect to a particular WLAN must be configured with the same SSID. It is added to the
3header of each packet sent over the WLAN and verified by the AP. A client device cannot
communicate with an AP unless it is configured with the same SSID.
2) WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) Protocol: According to the 802.11 standard, “Wired
equivalent privacy is defined as protecting authorized users of a wireless LAN from casual
eavesdropping. This service is intended to provide functionality for the wireless LAN
equivalent to that provided by the physical security attributes inherent to a wired medium.”
 IEEE specifications for wired LANs do not include data encryption as a requirement.
This is because approximately all of these LANs are secured by physical means such as
walled structures and controlled entrance to buildings, etc. However no such physical
boundaries can be provided in the case of WLANs, thus justifying the need for an encryption
mechanism such as WEP.
3) MAC Address Filtering: In this scheme, the AP is configured to accept association and
connection requests from only those nodes whose MAC addresses are registered with the AP.
2 http://grouper.ieee.org/groups/802/11/Reports/tgi_update.htm 3 Throughout the text, the word „client‟ is used interchangeably with the word „station‟ and the word „node‟. All of
these refer to the wireless device used by a user to connect to a WLAN.
Association and/or connection requests sent by other wireless devices will be rejected.
Although an unrealistic protection method in an enterprise network environment, MAC
address filtering can be an effective method in smaller networks at homes or small businesses. 4. WLANs Vulnerabilities
Ubiquitous network access without wires is the main attraction underlying wireless network deployment. Although this seems to be enough attraction, there exists other side of the picture. In this section, we discuss how WLANs could be vulnerable to a myriad of intrusion methods.
4.1. General Wireless Network Vulnerabilities
All wireless networks share a unique difference from their wired counterparts, i.e., its use of radio as transmission medium, which contributes to a unique vulnerability, „Lack of Physical Security‟. Besides, wireless networks may suffer other vulnerabilities, some of which they share with wired networks, such as „Invasion & Resource Stealing‟ and „Denial of Service‟. The other
vulnerabilities, such as „Rogue Access Points‟, are associated only with wireless networks.
？ Lack of Physical Security: Unlike wired networks, the signals of a wireless network are
broadcasted among the communicating nodes. A hacker with a compatible wireless device
can intercept the signals when the intercepting device is within the broadcasting range of the
communication paths. A hacker with a wireless laptop, for example, may be physically
outside a building but can still intercept and then decrypt wireless communications among
devices within the building.
？ Invasion & Resource Stealing: Resources in a network include access to various devices
(such as printers and servers) and services (such as connectivity to an intranet or the Internet).
To invade a network, the attacker will first try to determine the access parameters for that
particular network. Hacking techniques such as MAC spoofing may be used to attack a
WLAN  . For example, if the underlying network uses MAC-address-based filtering of
clients, all an intruder has to do is to find out the MAC address and the assigned IP address
for a particular client. The intruder will wait till that client goes off the network and then start
using the network and its resources, appearing as a valid user.
？ Traffic Redirection: An intruder can change the route of the traffic, causing packets destined
for a particular computer to be redirected to the attacking station.
？ Denial of Service (DOS): Two types of DOS attacks against a WLAN can exist. In the first
case, the intruder tries to bring the network to its knees by causing excessive interference. An
example could be excessive radio interference caused by 2.4 GHz cordless phones . A
more focused DOS attack would be when an attacking station sends 802.11 disassociate
4message or replays a previously-captured 802.1x EAPOL-logoff message to the target station
and effectively disconnects it (as in “Session Hijack” attacks). The later type of DOS attack
is described in more details in section 5.4, when we discuss the IEEE 802.11i protocol. ？ Rogue Access Points: A rogue AP is one that is installed by an attacker (usually in public
areas like shared office space, airports, etc.) to accept traffic from wireless clients to whom it
appears as a valid Authenticator. Packets thus captured can be used to extract sensitive
information, or for launching further attacks by, for example, modifying the content of the
captured packet and re-insert it into the network.
4.2. IEEE 802.11 Vulnerabilities
The above stated concerns relate to wireless networks in general. Some of the security concerns raised specifically against IEEE 802.11 networks are as follow . ？ MAC Address Authentication: Such sort of authentication establishes the identity of the
physical machine, not its human user. Thus an attacker who manages to steal a laptop with a
4 EAPOL, EAP over LAN, is a standard for encapsulating EAP messages.
registered MAC address will appear to the network as a legitimate user.
？ One-way Authentication: WEP authentication is client-centered or one-way only. This means that the client has to prove its identity to the AP but not vice versa. Thus a rogue AP may successfully authenticate the client station and then subsequently will be able to capture all the packets sent by that station through it.
？ Static WEP Keys: There is no concept of dynamic or per-session WEP keys in 802.11 specifications. Moreover the same WEP key has to be manually entered at all the stations in the WLAN, causing key management issues.
？ SSID: Since SSID is usually provided in the message header and transmitted as clear texts, it provides little security.
？ WEP Key Vulnerability: Many concerns have been raised regarding the usefulness of WEP in securing 802.11 WLANs. Some of them are as follow:
a. Manual Key Management - Keys need to be entered manually on all the clients and
access points. Such overhead may result in infrequently changed WEP keys. b. Key Size - The IEEE 802.11 design community blames 40-bit RC4 keys for the WEP
vulnerability, and recommends using 104 or 128-bit RC4 keys instead. Although using
larger key size does increase the work of an intruder, it does not provide completely
secure solution .
c. Initialization Vector (IV) - IV is used to avoid encrypting two identical plain texts with
the same key stream and thus result in the same cipher text. By combining a randomly
generated IV with the key, the probability of two identical plain texts being encrypted
into identical cipher texts is minimized. In WEP encryption the secret WEP key is
combined with a 24-bit IV to create the key. RC4 takes this key as input and generates a
key sequence equal to the total length of the plain text plus the IV. The key sequence is