Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA), Wi-Fi Protected Access II (WPA2), and Wi-Fi Protected Access 3 (WPA3) are three security protocols and security certification programs developed by the Wi-Fi Alliance to secure wireless computer networks. The Alliance defined these in response to serious weaknesses researchers had found in the previous system, Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP).
WPA (sometimes referred to as the draft IEEE 802.11i standard) became available in 2003. The Wi-Fi Alliance intended it as an intermediate measure in anticipation of the availability of the more secure and complex WPA2, which became available in 2004 and is a common shorthand for the full IEEE 802.11i (or IEEE 802.11i-2004) standard.
In January 2018, Wi-Fi Alliance announced the release of WPA3 with several security improvements over WPA2.
The Wi-Fi Alliance intended WPA as an intermediate measure to take the place of WEP pending the availability of the full IEEE 802.11i standard. WPA could be implemented through firmware upgrades on wireless network interface cards designed for WEP that began shipping as far back as 1999. However, since the changes required in the wireless access points (APs) were more extensive than those needed on the network cards, most pre-2003 APs could not be upgraded to support WPA.
The WPA protocol implements much of the IEEE 802.11i standard. Specifically, the Temporal Key Integrity Protocol (TKIP) was adopted for WPA. WEP used a 64-bit or 128-bit encryption key that must be manually entered on wireless access points and devices and does not change. TKIP employs a per-packet key, meaning that it dynamically generates a new 128-bit key for each packet and thus prevents the types of attacks that compromised WEP.
WPA also includes a Message Integrity Check, which is designed to prevent an attacker from altering and resending data packets. This replaces the cyclic redundancy check (CRC) that was used by the WEP standard. CRC’s main flaw was that it did not provide a sufficiently strong data integrity guarantee for the packets it handled. Well tested message authentication codes existed to solve these problems, but they required too much computation to be used on old network cards. WPA uses a message integrity check algorithm called TKIP to verify the integrity of the packets. TKIP is much stronger than a CRC, but not as strong as the algorithm used in WPA2. Researchers have since discovered a flaw in WPA that relied on older weaknesses in WEP and the limitations of the message integrity code hash function, named Michael, to retrieve the keystream from short packets to use for re-injection and spoofing.
WPA2 replaced WPA. WPA2, which requires testing and certification by the Wi-Fi Alliance, implements the mandatory elements of IEEE 802.11i. In particular, it includes mandatory support for CCMP, an AES-based encryption mode. Certification began in September, 2004; from March 13, 2006, WPA2 certification is mandatory for all new devices to bear the Wi-Fi trademark.
In January 2018, the Wi-Fi Alliance announced WPA3 as a replacement to WPA2. The new standard uses 128-bit encryption in WPA3-Personal mode (192-bit in WPA3-Enterprise) and forward secrecy. The WPA3 standard also replaces the Pre-Shared Key exchange with Simultaneous Authentication of Equals as defined in IEEE 802.11-2016 resulting in a more secure initial key exchange in personal mode. The Wi-Fi Alliance also claims that WPA3 will mitigate security issues posed by weak passwords and simplify the process of setting up devices with no display interface.
WPA has been designed specifically to work with wireless hardware produced prior to the introduction of WPA protocol, which provides inadequate security through WEP. Some of these devices support WPA only after applying firmware upgrades, which are not available for some legacy devices.
Wi-Fi devices certified since 2006 support both the WPA and WPA2 security protocols. WPA2 may not work with some older network cards.
Different WPA versions and protection mechanisms can be distinguished based on the target end-user (according to the method of authentication key distribution), and the encryption protocol used.
Also referred to as WPA-PSK (pre-shared key) mode, this is designed for home and small office networks and doesn’t require an authentication server. Each wireless network device encrypts the network traffic by deriving its 128-bit encryption key from a 256 bit shared key. This key may be entered either as a string of 64 hexadecimal digits, or as a passphrase of 8 to 63 printable ASCII characters. If ASCII characters are used, the 256 bit key is calculated by applying the PBKDF2 key derivation function to the passphrase, using the SSID as the salt and 4096 iterations of HMAC-SHA1. WPA-Personal mode is available with both WPA and WPA2.
Also referred to as WPA-802.1X mode, and sometimes just WPA (as opposed to WPA-PSK), this is designed for enterprise networks and requires a RADIUS authentication server. This requires a more complicated setup, but provides additional security (e.g. protection against dictionary attacks on short passwords). Various kinds of the Extensible Authentication Protocol (EAP) are used for authentication. WPA-Enterprise mode is available with both WPA and WPA2.
Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS)
This is an alternative authentication key distribution method intended to simplify and strengthen the process, but which, as widely implemented, creates a major security hole via WPS PIN recovery.
TKIP (Temporal Key Integrity Protocol)
The RC4 stream cipher is used with a 128-bit per-packet key, meaning that it dynamically generates a new key for each packet. This is used by WPA.
CCMP (CTR mode with CBC-MAC Protocol)
The protocol used by WPA2, based on the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) cipher along with strong message authenticity and integrity checking is significantly stronger in protection for both privacy and integrity than the RC4-based TKIP that is used by WPA. Among informal names are “AES” and “AES-CCMP”. According to the 802.11n specification, this encryption protocol must be used to achieve fast 802.11n high bitrate schemes, though not all implementations] enforce this. Otherwise, the data rate will not exceed 54 Mbit/s.