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Protecting Your Network from the Wi-Fi Protected Setup Security Hole

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Even if you’ve encrypted and secured your wireless network with Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA or WPA2), a security hole affecting most wireless routers may make it fairly easy for those with the right tools to hack your network and connect. This new vulnerability affects most wireless routers and allows others to crack your Wi-Fi security no matter how strong of a password you have. Eric Geier, author of Wi-Fi Hotspots: Setting Up Public Wireless Internet Access, shows how to prevent this and protect your network.

Even if you’ve encrypted and secured your wireless network with Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA or WPA2), a security hole affecting most wireless routers may make it fairly easy for those with the right tools to hack your network and connect. They could then steal the wireless Internet access, possibly connect to your computers, and snoop on your network traffic to perhaps capture your passwords and hijack your online accounts.

This security hole comes from the Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS) feature designed by the Wi-Fi Alliance to—ironically—make securing and connecting Wi-Fi devices easier and has been included on the majority of wireless routers made since 2007. It can automatically enable WPA/WPA2 security, the personal or pre-shared key (PSK) mode used in homes. If your router doesn’t support WPS or you use the enterprise (802.1X) mode of WPA/WPA2 security, then this vulnerability doesn’t apply to you and you don’t have to worry.

Wireless vendors have a few ways to implement WPS, but the PIN method is the only one required, and is the source of the security hole. The way the PIN information is exchanged between the router and clients makes it much easier to brute-force the PIN, repeatedly sending guesses to the router from a client using a tool like Reaver or WPScrack. After a few hours, these tools will likely reveal the target router’s WPS PIN and the WPA or WPA2 passphrase, both of which can be used to connect to the network.

Wireless vendors and/or the Wi-Fi Alliance may help patch this security hole by implementing additional security measures, such as limiting the amount and frequency of PIN guesses. They could possibly fix the issue in new models and in existing models by releasing firmware updates that you may even be able to use with your current router. If they don’t make any enhancements, the only way to patch the security hole is to turn WPS off, but even then some routers still might be vulnerable as they may still response to PIN queries.

To see if your router supports WPS—whether or not you should be worried about this security hole—first check if there’s an 8-digit PIN number printed on the bottom of your router. Also see if there are any WPS logos on it or on the box it came in. But even if you don’t see any evidence, you should still double-check your router’s settings for any mention of WPS.

To check or change your router’s settings, log on to the web-based interface by typing the router’s IP address into a web browser on a computer that’s connected to your network. If you don’t remember the password to log on, try the default, which can be found in the router’s documentation or online. Once logged on, look for WPS settings, perhaps in the wireless or advanced settings.

If you find you have WPS, you can usually disable via the router settings. But again, it may not actually stop people from taking advantage of the security hole.

Before giving up on your router, check the wireless vendor’s website and look for any firmware updates for your particular router that were released in January 2012 or after. Then look at the release notes for any mention of a WPS fix or update. If you see one, then you can simply download the firmware file and upload it to your router via the settings interface in your web browser. Otherwise, you might consider checking to see if your router is supported by after-market firmware, like DD-WRT or Tomato, which don’t support or include WPS.

As a last resort for full peace of mind, if your router doesn’t have firmware updates and can’t go the after-market route, you may consider buying a different router model that doesn’t come with WPS.

If you were using WPS to secure and connect your Wi-Fi devices and have disabled it (or are using a new firmware or router that doesn’t support it), you’ll now need to discover how to live without it—which really isn’t difficult. Simply log on to your router’s settings by typing its IP address into a web browser. Find the wireless settings and look for the WPA or WPA2 passphrase, or enable and create a passphrase if not done yet. The passphrase is what you type into Wi-Fi computers and devices when trying to connect. If you see WEP is enabled, change to WPA2 because it’s the most secure option to date.

If the router is for business use, consider using the Enterprise (802.1X) mode of WPA2 instead of the personal or PSK mode. When using the enterprise mode, the WPS vulnerability doesn’t apply even if you have WPS on your router. This is because WPS only works with the personal mode, and if you don’t have it enabled there isn’t anything to worry about.

The Enterprise mode, however, is much more complex to set up. It uses 802.1X authentication, which requires a RADIUS server. If you have a domain network, you can use the Internet Authenticate Service (IAS) feature of Windows Server 2000 or 2003 or the Network Policy Server (NPS) feature of Windows Server 2008 or later. If you don’t have a Windows Server, consider the free open source FreeRADIUS server. But if you don’t want to run your own server, consider APs with built-in RADIUS servers or cloud services that can host the server for you.