Product Group Tests

Wireless security (2007)

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Pre-built policies and a large number of features make AirMagnet Enterprise 7.5 our Best Buy.

Aruba's 800 Mobility Controller proved easy to install and administrate, and was also feature rich. We have given it our Recommended award.

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In contrast to earlier versions, today's updated wireless networks have security controls to the point that an appropriately configured wireless network provides greater security than a traditional wired network.

However, there is still a great deal of confusion due to all the standards that exist just for wireless networking. So here are some of the common terms used in relationship to wireless networking.

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) creates standards, and they number these in unique ways. The 802.11 standard covers wireless networks. The a, b and g notations identify different flavours of the standard:

802.11b was the first version to reach the market. It is the slowest and least expensive of the three. 802.11b transmits at 2.4 GHz and can handle up to 11MB per second. It is still widely used even though newer standards have emerged.

802.11a was next. It operates at 5 GHz and can handle up to 54MB per second. 802.11a adoption was much slower and less widespread than 802.11b networks as many organisations installed 802.11b networks when they first became available and decided not to upgrade.

802.11g is a mix of both standards. Its radio operates in 2.4 GHz spa ce - giving it the cost advantage of 802.11b but with the speed of 802.11a. This is perhaps the most common type of wireless network seen today. All 802.11g networks are backward compliant with 802.11b, which has made upgrading easier.

802.11i includes several security features that are now used to secure wireless, such as TKIP, 802.1X, and EAP. These features were all part of an interim standard known at WPA or WiFi Protected Access. The Wi-Fi Alliance created a standard that would allow for interoperability throughout 802.1X, EAP, and TKIP implementations.

Most of these security features are incorporated into the IETF's new wireless network security standard 802.11i. The Wi-Fi Alliance has created a second standard, WPA2, which encompasses the new AES algorithm into the security features.

WEP stands for Wired Equivalent Privacy, and it is an encryption system for the data that 802.11 sends through the air. WEP has two variations: an older 64-bit encryption and slightly more recent 128-bit encryption. The 128-bit encryption is what most people use if they enable WEP on their access points. In most cases a casual end-user will not be able to access the wireless network that is using WEP unless the key is provided. The security risk here is that the WEP key used to authenticate the laptop or PDA to the network is stored locally on these devices.

Don't confuse the authentication mechanism we are discussing here - 802.1X - with the standards mentioned above (802.11 a,b,g). While these terms are both IEEE standards, they are actually completely different. In fact, 802.1X can be used without a wireless network and can run on a traditional (wired) ethernet network. The use of 802.1X offers an effective framework for authenticating and controlling user traffic to a protected network, as well as dynamically varying encryption keys.

802.1X ties a protocol called EAP (extensible authentication protocol) to both the wired and wireless LAN media and supports multiple authentication methods such as token cards, Kerberos, one-time passwords, certificates and public key authentication.

Temporal key integrity protocol (TKIP) is a recent security feature offered by various vendors to correct the weak WEP problem. It was developed by some of the same researchers who found the weaknesses in how RC4 was implemented. TKIP corrects these weaknesses and more. TKIP still uses RC4 as the encryption algorithm, but it removes the weak key problem and forces a new key to be generated every 10,000 packets or 10KB or every five minutes, depending on the source.

How we tested
We built each wireless network using the vendor's recommended hardware and software. We used the default configuration to test for ease of use and other metrics. Once the network was up and running, we would bring up a rogue access point to see if the devices could detect the rogue access point. We then attempted to change the configuration on the access points themselves.

All of the products featured in this test scored well in detecting the rogue access point, the rogue client, and unauthorised configuration changes.

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