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WPA3: The Next Generation in Secure Mobility

By Dave Chen, Head of Campus Switching Product Marketing

Written by Dave Chen and Dan Harkins

The Wi-Fi Alliance has recently announced a new standard in wireless, Wi-Fi CERTIFIED WPA3TM. WPA3 (Wi-Fi Protected Access) is designed as the successor to widely used WPA2 and brings a number of core enhancements to improve security protections and onboarding procedures across personal, public, and enterprise networks.

Security issues on the network range widely for IT and personal users alike – from malicious attackers and unknown devices to risks posed by a misconfigured network. The rise in IoT devices exacerbate these problems, especially in enterprise networks. In the home and small business space, open and lightly protected networks are attractive targets for attackers out to gain access to the network or sniff out potentially sensitive information sent in the clear. WPA2-Personal is particularly susceptible to offline dictionary attacks, while WPA2-Enterprise is very hard to the provision because it has so many options.

This is where standards-based designs, much like an API-compatible, multivendor network architecture, steps in to enable a high degree of adoption of new features and technologies to improve end-user protections and IT capabilities.

As we walk through what WPA3 does, please note, WPA3 does not replace your existing enterprise-grade security solution. Security must be taken holistically and integrate capabilities ranging from a user, device, and application-level granularity.

With that, WPA3 aims to solve these key problems:

Problem: Wireless traffic is passed in the clear (open networks)

Solution: With WPA3, there are no more open networks! OWE, or Opportunistic Wireless Encryption encrypts all wireless traffic on formerly Open networks.

The most likely relatable scenario typically involves networks you commonly connect to in small businesses such as coffee shops, private auto shops, and restaurants, where Wi-Fi is not a gated asset. If these are Open networks or even if they use a shared and public PSK (such as written on a chalkboard or on the menu in a restaurant) your Wi-Fi traffic can be decrypted by attackers on the network. OWE raises the bar on security and protects against these passive attacks.

An OWE network provides users with a seamless experience. It looks like an Open network in the list of available networks, but under the covers, OWE provides improved security.

Problem: PSK can be methodically hacked with an offline dictionary attack

Solution: PSK mode is replaced by SAE, or Simultaneous Authentication of Equals,  which is resistant to active, passive, and dictionary attacks.

Offline dictionary attacks observe a single WPA2-PSK exchange and then cycle through all possible combinations of a Wi-Fi password, seeing if the guessed one was used in the exchange, until the right password is found. The more complex you make your password the better, but complex passwords are hard for people to manage and enter with a low probability of error. Putting the burden of network security on users is never a good idea. With WPA3-SAE, the protocol is secured and retains its security even when used with PSKs that would be deemed too weak for WPA2-PSK.

With WPA3-SAE, users need not learn about new security procedures (or know what a dictionary attack is). The UI for SAE is identical to a PSK network. Users are comfortable entering a password when prompted and nothing changes from their point-of-view but under the covers they get a truly secure connection.

Problem: Mix-and-match nature of WPA2-Enterprise can result in less-than-optimal security

Solution: WPA3 introduces 256-bit encryption, CNSA (Suite B) security capabilities, and baseline rules to ensure consistent security.

While enterprises deploy highly secure networks using WPA2-Enterprise configurations, there are still too many options during implementation that can result in less-than-secure deployments. For instance, should you use RSA key exchanges? 1024-bit authenticating 2048-bit?  TLS 1.0? SHA1? With new WPA3-CNSA, EAP-TLS uses Suite B TLS ciphersuites, and also introduces 192-bit security commonly deployed in high-security Wi-Fi networks in government, defense, and industrial verticals. These ciphersuites combine all of the various options—cipher mode, hash algorithm, key exchange, authentication method—into a single suite that provides consistent security for each user connection. No more mixing and matching of options and no more worries about clients "negotiating down" the security of an EAP-TLS connection, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

Problem: There are too many WPA2-Enterprise certified devices that do not properly check certificate chains

Solution: WPA3 establishes mandatory certificate chain testing to ensure proper network verification by the end-device. WPA3 also introduces mandatory management frame protection, which helps secure devices against an attack masking itself as an access point.

Problem: Devices take time to onboard

Solution: DPP, or Device Provisioning Protocol, makes it easier to onboard headless devices, that may or may not have a touchscreen or keyboard with, say, a QR code.

Not strictly WPA3 per se, but DPP is marketed under the umbrella of WPA3. Imagine yourself with a brand new WeMo or Amazon Alexa. The typical procedure is to connect to the IoT device and manually enter the network SSID and password. As you connect more and more devices, especially in an enterprise setting where you may need to connect a plethora of Smart TVs, Apple HomePods, and connected lighting, scale becomes a huge problem.

DPP provisioning gives a certificate-like credential to these devices, and allows a trusted device to bootstrap another device onto a network with any of the following secure/unsecure methods:

  • Scanning a QR code printed on the back
  • Using a simple code or phrase
  • Touching the device with NFC

When will I see WPA3?

Overall adoption will take a few years to transition. WPA3 packages up improvements to security and adds ease-of-use features that will be adopted by the industry in the months and years to come. These new security features are added in a manner that does not impact users. There are no new procedures to learn, no complex rules for constructing passwords, and the user experience does not change even though the security level of the network is increased.

Aruba is busy integrating WPA3 features into network infrastructure to enable existing and new customers to take advantage of these capabilities as soon as possible. We'll keep you posted with new updates to our firmware.

As with any software feature or standard update, end-devices such as phones, tablets, laptops, and other devices must also support WPA3 to make use of the new security features offered by WPA3. Some features such as OWE and SAE will require a minimum software upgrade or patch, while other features such as optional CNSA (Suite B) encryption, may require new hardware support to take advantage of 256-bit encryption.

Your transition from WPA2 to WPA3 will depend on your IT security requirements and how many devices support WPA3. While this may need at least the next few years to completely phase out, your end-users with WPA2 will not experience any problems when connecting to a WPA3 network. A WPA3-capable device will be able to connect to an OWE BSS on your network, while a WPA2-only device will connect as usual to an Open BSS.

If you have any questions about these features, please ask them on the chat box below, and if you want to learn more about WPA3, take a look at some of the public news releases and articles here! Oh, and ask these questions to your Wi-Fi experts at Aruba Atmosphere!

Additional resources:

Wi-Fi Alliance press release

Network World article

How To Geek article

For the brainiacs reading this, you can also refer to these technical publications that served as the foundation for WPA3:

–Harkins, D. and W. Kumari, "Opportunistic Wireless Encryption", RFC 8110, March 2017

–IEEE 802.11-2016

–Harkins, D., "The Dragonfly Key Exchange", RFC 7664, November 2015

–US National Security Agency, "NSA Suite B Cryptography", January 2009

–Wi-Fi Alliance, "Device Provisioning Protocol Technical Specification" v0.2.8, December 2017

–Harkins, D. "The Public Key Exchange", draft-harkins-pkex-05, January 2018

–Stejano, F, and A. Ross, "The Resurrecting Duckling", Lecture Notes in Computer Science, vol 1796. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg, 1999

–IEEE 802.11ai-2016, "Amendment 1: Fast Initial Link Setup", 2016