Security Analysis on Wep

                                    Author Clint Pitzak


Over the years society has had the need for protecting their families. We build homes to keep out the elements. In those homes we put locks on the doors and windows to make them secure from intruders that would break through and rob the things that are most precious and private to us. We live in a day and age that has changed the rules. Now those locks on doors and windows are meaningless and have no effect. There is a much more sophisticated type of robbery. The robbery that cannot be heard, it steals silently through the space within our walls, coming from the outside world to our computer. Our lives have become so integrated with cyberspace. Now there is a more elaborate form of security that is needed.

We now need to put digital locks on our internet connections to prevent intruders from intercepting sensitive data. The type of harm that can result from such an intrusion is severe. A successful intrusion can result in stolen identity, damaged credit and financial ruin among other things. Currently many people use the Wired Equivalent Privacy protocol (WEP) as a means to secure their network. Unfortunately this protocol provides little security and is easily compromised. The best way to know how to prevent someone from breaking into our house is to know how they will do it; this way we can prevent the occurrence before it happens. This paper will discuss the vulnerabilities with WEP and demonstrate how an intruder can successfully compromise a networking using it. This way we will know how to prevent intruders from getting into our private network. And lastly we will discuss other security protocols that should be used instead of WEP.


An environment that uses WEP is a wireless local area network (WLAN). A basic WLAN consist of a modem (cable or DSL), a router, an access point and client (laptop, desktops, PDAs, cell phones, etc...).

Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) is a security protocol for WLANs defined in the 802.11b standard. WEP is designed to protect against eavesdropping by encrypting data packets over radio waves being sent and received by the access point and clients. These data packets are encrypted by the RC4 stream cipher algorithm which was designed by Ron Rivest in 1987. The RC4 stream cipher algorithm was kept a secret until 1994 when an anonymous user posted it online. Since then many flaws in the algorithm have been found and exploited. This paper discusses how an attacker can locate a WLAN running WEP, capture packets being sent across the network, and use information from those packets to recover the WEP key. The estimated time of the attack is less then 5 minutes.

WLAN Setup

A wireless local area network is made up of an internet connection, a modem, a router, access point(s), and clients(s). The modem is connected to a phone line from which the internet access is provided by an ISP (Internet Service Provider). From the modem a router is connected which buffers and forwards packets across the network. A router is connected to at least two networks, in our case the ISP network and our WLAN. The location between these two networks is referred to as a gateway.

Through forwarding tables and headers a router finds the correct path for packets to be sent. Connected to the router is an access point that broadcast packets through radio waves to client(s). Clients are desktop computers, laptops, PDA’s, cell phones, and other devices that have a wireless network interface.

   Example of a WLAN network setup (Fig. 1)

Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP)

WEP is a protocol that adds security to a wireless local area networks (WLANs) based on 802.11 Wi-Fi standards. WEP was intended to give the same level of privacy as wired LANs. A wired LAN is a local area network where the clients are physically connected to a hub, switch, or router. The wired LAN is protected by physical walls such as buildings or homes that they are located in. Wireless LANs don’t have the inherit protection as wired LANs do (walls) since the signal is broadcast through radio waves. WEP is designed to give the same inherit protect as a wired LAN by encrypting the data packets before they are sent over the network.

The WEP security protocol utilizes the RC4 stream cipher algorithm to encrypt data packets. A secret key (WEP key) is shared between the access point and its clients. The secret key plus an initialization vector (IV) is used to encrypt the data packets. The initialization vector is a consciously changing number used to ensure two or more identical blocks of plaintext being encrypted don’t create the same ciphertext. If the same ciphertext is created then an attacker can receptively view these encrypted data packets, trying to interpret the original value.

When WEP first originated it supported 64 bit encryption then 128 bit encryption and now some vendors provide 256 bits encryption. The bit size of the advertised encryption is misleading. For instance, the 128 bit encryption only has a 104 bit secret key size. The other 24 bits make up the initialization vector which is transmitted in plaintext, meaning anyone can read it. Below (Fig. 1.1) you can see the secret key (40 bit or 104 bit) and IV (24 bit) combined (K) are used to encrypt the data packets (P) and checksum (CRC).

   Anatomy of a packet and encryption key (Fig. 1.1)

The data packets are encrypted and a CRC-32 (Cyclic Redundancy Code) applied before they are transmitted over the network by the access point or clients. The CRC-32 is a checksum used to ensure data integrity. The intent of CRC is to know if the data packet has been tampered with or corrupt. If it is corrupt or tampered with then the integrity check will not match up with the checksum. The 32 represents the length of the checksum in bits. (Fleck 20).

Once the message packet is received the receiver uses the IV and secret key to decrypt the data then verify the CRC-32 checksum for integrity.

   Wired Equivalency Privacy (WEP) Encryption and Decryption (Fig. 1.2)

From the above graphic (Fig. 1.2) we can see that the secret key and IV make up what is known as the seed. The seed is then passed to the RC4 stream cipher algorithm to produce a keystream. The keystream is XORed with the data packet (plaintext) and CRC checksum to product the ciphertext. The ciphertext is then appended with the IV (see Fig. 1.1) and sent over the network. The receiver then decrypts the data packet and uses the CRC checksum to verify data integrity.

Weaknesses with WEP

One of the major flaws of WEP is how it addresses key management; everyone on the network uses the same secret key. This means that everyone on the network has the ability to decrypt data packets that are intended for other users or devices. In settings such as business or homes where new people are introduced to the network, data security declines. Even if a user only used the network once they can use it again at a latter time since they were given the secret key. It is suggested that network administrator changes the secret key after a set amount of days to prevent old users from accessing the network.

Networks using the 40 bit encryption option of WEP are susceptible to a brute force attack. A brute force attack is where every possible combination of characters are used to guarantee a match after a duration of time. Generally brute force attacks take large amounts, from months to thousands of years. In our case the key space is only 2^40 (40 bit) which is just over 1 trillion possible keys. Although this is a large number the amount of time for a computer to search ever key in the key space of 2^40 is trivial (about an hour).

If an attacker recovers two ciphertexts that are created with the same keystream, it is possible to generate the XOR of two resulting plaintexts (CT1 XOR CT2 = PT1 XOR PT2). If we can recover two of these ciphertext, we can use a statistically attack to decipher the other ciphertext on the network. And if the attacker obtains more ciphertexts that use the same keystream, the statistical attack has a higher probability of finding the secret key.

The initialization vector (IV) is supposed to protect against the same keystream being used to encrypt data packets. However some vendor implementations use the same IV for all data packets during the connection lifespan. It is necessary to rotate the IV to avoid repetition of keystreams. However if the rotation is predictable it can result is a greater security flaw, giving the attacker a knowledge of what IV to use next. Even if the vendor does implement the IV well, keystreams will still be reused. This is because the IV space is only 24 bit long. For example a network transmitting packets of 1800 bytes at 11Mbps will use up the 24 bit space of the IV in 3 hours 52 minutes and 43.64 seconds.

   Time to exhaust IV space (Fig. 1.3)

Another weakness deals with the checksum (CRC-32) WEP uses. Since CRC-32 is linear, an attacker can compute the bit difference of two checksums based on the difference of the data packet. This means if an attacker changes the encrypted data packet he can figure out the value that needs to be changed for the checksum. This results in the receiver thinking that the data is valid. An example of this is below; you can see that both images are difference. However the CRC-32 checksum of both images have been manipulated to be the same, therefore the receiver will think they are the same.

   Exploiting CRC-32 Weakness in WEP (Fig. 1.4)

Attacking WEP

A Passive attack is where an attacker listens to message packets being sent and received from the access point and client, waiting for an IV to be reused (IV collision). As stated previously if an attacker receives two ciphertext that use the same keystream he can XOR the two ciphertext and receive the XOR of the two plaintexts. As the attacker receives more IV collisions he can use a program to statistically find the exact contents of the data packets and even the secret key used to encrypt them. We know that as a result of a small IV bit space (24 bits) there is a guarantee that IV collisions will occur over a duration of time. Another type of passive attack is implemented by sending traffic from a host on the internet to the wireless network, and then intercepting the encrypted reply. Since the attacker knows the contents of the message packet he sent he can better understand how to decrypt other data packets using the same IV. This method is both a passive attack and an active attack called packet injection.

Active Attack

Packet injection (re-injection or replay) is an active attack where the attacker intercepts a message packet, changes the value of both the data packet and checksum then sends it to the access point or clients. In order for this attack to work the attacker must know the plaintext of at least one ciphertext. Imagine the attacker is sitting with you at your keyboard editing what type on your computer against your will; packet injection attack can accomplish this. Packet injection is also used to speed up the amount of IV collisions that occur on a wireless network. If IV collisions occur more frequently then an attacker can find the secret key faster. This is because the probability of finding the secret key increases as IV collisions increases on a wireless network.

Performing the Attack

We need to make sure we have the correct hardware. We will need a wireless network card that supports both packet injection and monitor mode. Any prism2 based cards will work. Other cards are supported but usually require a specific hardware revision for them to work.

Now that we have the correct hardware we must first locate a wireless network using the WEP security protocol. We can accomplish this by running a program called kismet. Kismet is an open source 802.11 wireless network sniffer, locator and intrusion detection program that can be downloaded online for free. The environment that we will be working in is BackTrack, a distribution of Linux. Many tasks that we will perform can be accomplished in Windows also.

   Kismet, a WLAN sniffer, locator and intrusion detection system. (Fig. 1.5)

We are now able to see the wireless networks in our area. Notice that not all of the IP address have been listed. This is because kismet hasn’t received an ARP (address resolution Protocol) reply from all of the networks yet. On the left side we can see the SSID (service set identifier) which is the name of the network. By analyzing the rest of the information in the above picture we see the channel that the access point is broadcasting on, the amount of packets that are being sent and their size. We can also see if the wireless network is running WEP. If we highlight a SSID and hit enter we receive more information about the wireless network (see Fig 1.6).

   Expanded view of WLAN information (Fig. 1.6)

The most important information from the above figure is the SSID, BSSID (basic service set identifier), and network channel. The BSSID is the MAC address of the access point.

A MAC (media access control) address is the physical address of a device. We will use this information with another program called airodump to monitor the message packets being sent across the wireless network. We will be looking for IV collisions for a statistical attack to find the secret key. We start airodump by typing airodump followed by our wireless network card interface, a file name to save the IV collisions, and the MAC address of the access point (see Fig. 1.7).

   Airodump a packet sniffer used for monitoring wireless networks. (Fig. 1.7)

Once airodump has been started we can see the amount of packets that we are capturing and the number of IV collisions found (see Fig. 1.8).

   Airodump capturing packets (Fig. 1.8)

We want about 200,000~500,000 IVs, in order to stay within our estimated time we will re-inject an ARP requests on the wireless network into the access point 512 per second. We can use aireplay in combination with the ARP request we have captured from airodump to perform the re-injection. The response form the ARP request will increase the amount of traffic on the network and more IV collisions will occur.

We can now see (Fig 1.9) the amount of IV collisions increases dramatically. In a few minutes we will have enough IVs to recover the secret key.

   Airodump IV collisions increased. (Fig. 1.9)

While airodump is running we can start aircrack to begin the statistical attack for recovering the secret key. We start the aircrack program by typing aircrack followed by the name of the file we saved the IVs to. Aircrack find the secret key in a matter of seconds (see Fig. 2).

   Aircrack using a statistical attack on IV collisions to find the secret key (Fig. 2).

We have seen that the WEP security protocol doesn’t provide a reliable means of security and should be avoided. We can see that with minimal effort an attacker can successfully find our secret key. Once the attacker is on our network he can carry out other malicious practices that could have severe effect on wireless network members. Fortunately there other security protocols have been created which do not have the vulnerabilities of WEP.

Advanced Security Protocols

WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access) is a security protocol designed with the same intent as WEP but without the vulnerabilities. It was created in response to the several weaknesses found in WEP by researchers. In WPA the RC4 stream cipher is used with a 128 bit key and a 48 bit initialization vector (IV); an improvement from the 24 bit initialization vector (IV) that was used by WEP.

Another improvement of WPA is the use of Temporal Key Integrity Protocol (TKIP) which provides per-packet key mixing, re-keying and integrity checking. TKIP ensures that a different key is used for every data packet that is encrypted. In WEP it was optional to use a different key for every data packet, in WPA it is required. The checksum CRC-32 isn’t the only means of data integrity checking in WPA. An algorithm called Michael is used to increase the security of integrity checking. Michael (MIC) is encrypted and inserted between the data packets and CRC making it much more difficult to tamper with the checksum.

An improvement of WPA is WPA2 which implements TKIP and uses CCMP (Counter Mode with Cipher Block Chaining Message Authentication Code Protocol). CCMP utilizes the AES algorithm (Advanced Standard Encryption) which is a block cipher adopted by the US Government. AES encryption meets the Federal Information Processing Standard (FIPS) 140-2 requirement. FIPS are standards developed by the United States Government for use by all non-government agencies.

It is a relief to know that new devices wishing to be Wi-Fi certified must first be WPA2 certified. Currently not all wireless devices support WPA and WPA2; users should consult their manufactures manual for compatibility. If WPA2 is compatible with a users devices (wireless network cards and access points) it is highly recommend to use the WPA2 security protocol.


We have learned what a wireless network is and why we shouldn’t use the wireless equivalency protocol to secure it. Through our study we have examined the RC4 stream cipher encryption algorithm and how it is implemented in WEP. It has been evident that the initiation vector used in WEP doesn’t provide a bit length large enough to prevent keystream repetition. Once we were able to capture initialization vector collisions we were able to use a statistical attack to find the secret key. Once we knew the secret key we were able to connect to the wireless network as a trusted user and could then carry out malicious practices. As a result we concluded that the wireless equivalency privacy protocol (WEP) should be avoided.

Later we covered other security protocols that have been created in response to the security issues in WEP. Such wireless security protocols discussed were WPA (Wi-Fi Access Protocol) and WPA2 which is a more secure version of WPA. After reviewing various security enhancements of WPA2, we concluded that WPA2 was the best security protocol for our wireless networks. As an added comfort we were made aware of the fact that AES, an encryption algorithm used in WPA2, has been adopted by the US Government. With the vast amount of information gained from this research paper, it is suggested that the reader share his knowledge with others about why WEP should be avoided.

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