WiFi eyes better wireless LAN security

The Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance (WECA), which certifies IEEE 802.11 wireless LAN products with the WiFi label, on Thursday will announce a new set of mechanisms to combat the security problem that has plagued wireless LANs.

A WECA official did not provide details of the mechanisms but said they are intended to replace the current security system based on WEP (Wireless Encryption Protocol).

WEP, which is built in to products that use the IEEE 802.11b and 802.11a standards, is easy for intruders to break into, according to many analysts and other observers. A task group within the working group that administers 802.11 in the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers Inc. (IEEE) is developing a new security specification that would require equipment to support several different strong algorithms for encrypting traffic. That work is not done yet, and products using it are not expected until the second half of next year.

WECA has taken a "snapshot" of part of the security task group's work to get better security to the market sooner, said Al Petrick, vice chairman of the IEEE 802.11 working group, in a speech last month.

Security concerns have hindered the acceptance of wireless LANs, especially in corporations, overshadowing the potential benefits of letting employees stay connected to a network while moving around a building or campus, according to some analysts.

With WEP, the keys used to encrypt data passing over the network can be cracked just by examining a brief sample of packets, according to Peter Shipley, a security consultant in Berkeley, California.

Some vendors, such as Cisco Systems Inc., sell corporate 802.11 systems equipped with other methods of security on top of WEP. However, most consumer-oriented wireless LAN equipment offers only WEP.

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