Top Security Risks of ‘Wi-Fi Network’

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Wi-Fi or WiFi (/ˈwaɪ faɪ/) is a technology that allows electronic devices to connect to a wireless LAN (WLAN) network, mainly using the 2.4 gigahertz (12 cm) UHF and 5 gigahertz (6 cm) SHF ISM radio bands. A WLAN is usually password protected, but may be open, which allows any device within its range to access the resources of the WLAN network.

The Wi-Fi Alliance defines Wi-Fi as any “wireless local area network” (WLAN) product based on the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ (IEEE) 802.11 standards. However, the term “Wi-Fi” is used in general English as a synonym for “WLAN” since most modern WLANs are based on these standards. “Wi-Fi” is a trademark of the Wi-Fi Alliance. The “Wi-Fi Certified” trademark can only be used by Wi-Fi products that successfully complete Wi-Fi Alliance interoperability certification testing.

Devices which can use Wi-Fi technology include personal computers, video-game consoles, smartphones, digital cameras, tablet computers, digital audio players and modern printers. Wi-Fi compatible devices can connect to the Internet via a WLAN network and a wireless access point. Such an access point (or hotspot) has a range of about 20 meters (66 feet) indoors and a greater range outdoors. Hotspot coverage can be as small as a single room with walls that block radio waves, or as large as many square kilometres achieved by using multiple overlapping access points.

Depiction of a device sending information wirelessly to another device, both connected to the local network, in order to print a document.

Wi-Fi is less secure than wired connections, such as Ethernet, precisely because an intruder does not need a physical connection. Web pages that use TLS are secure, but unencrypted Internet access can easily be detected by intruders. Because of this, Wi-Fi has adopted various encryptiontechnologies. The early encryption WEP proved easy to break. Higher quality protocols (WPA, WPA2) were added later. An optional feature added in 2007, called Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS), had a serious flaw that allowed an attacker to recover the router’s password.  The Wi-Fi Alliance has since updated its test plan and certification program to ensure all newly certified devices resist attacks.

Network security

The main issue with wireless network security is its simplified access to the network compared to traditional wired networks such as Ethernet. With wired networking, one must either gain access to a building (physically connecting into the internal network), or break through an external firewall. To enable Wi-Fi, one merely needs to be within the range of the Wi-Fi network. Most business networks protect sensitive data and systems by attempting to disallow external access. Enabling wireless connectivity reduces security if the network uses inadequate or no encryption.

An attacker who has gained access to a Wi-Fi network router can initiate a DNS spoofing attack against any other user of the network by forging a response before the queried DNS server has a chance to reply.

Data security risks

The most common wireless encryption-standard, Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP), has been shown to be easily breakable even when correctly configured. Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA and WPA2) encryption, which became available in devices in 2003, aimed to solve this problem. Wi-Fi access points typically default to an encryption-free (open) mode. Novice users benefit from a zero-configuration device that works out-of-the-box, but this default does not enable any wireless security, providing open wireless access to a LAN. To turn security on requires the user to configure the device, usually via a software graphical user interface (GUI). On unencrypted Wi-Fi networks connecting devices can monitor and record data (including personal information). Such networks can only be secured by using other means of protection, such as a VPN or secure Hypertext Transfer Protocol over Transport Layer Security (HTTPS).

Wi-Fi Protected Access encryption (WPA2) is considered secure, provided a strong passphrase is used. A proposed modification to WPA2 is WPA-OTP or WPA3, which stores an on-chip optically generated onetime pad on all connected devices which is periodically updated via strong encryption then hashed with the data to be sent or received. This would be unbreakable using any (even quantum) computer system as the hashed data is essentially random and no pattern can be detected if it is implemented properly. Main disadvantage is that it would need multi-GB storage chips so would be expensive for the consumers.

Securing methods

A common measure to deter unauthorized users involves hiding the access point’s name by disabling the SSID broadcast. While effective against the casual user, it is ineffective as a security method because the SSID is broadcast in the clear in response to a client SSID query. Another method is to only allow computers with known MAC addresses to join the network, but determined eavesdroppers may be able to join the network by spoofing an authorized address.

Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) encryption was designed to protect against casual snooping but it is no longer considered secure. Tools such as AirSnort or Aircrack-ng can quickly recover WEP encryption keys. Because of WEP’s weakness the Wi-Fi Alliance approved Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) which uses TKIP. WPA was specifically designed to work with older equipment usually through a firmware upgrade. Though more secure than WEP, WPA has known vulnerabilities.

The more secure WPA2 using Advanced Encryption Standard was introduced in 2004 and is supported by most new Wi-Fi devices. WPA2 is fully compatible with WPA.

A flaw in a feature added to Wi-Fi in 2007, called Wi-Fi Protected Setup, allows WPA and WPA2 security to be bypassed and effectively broken in many situations. The only remedy as of late 2011 is to turn off Wi-Fi Protected Setup, which is not always possible.

Virtual Private Networks are often used to secure Wi-Fi.


Piggybacking refers to access to a wireless Internet connection by bringing one’s own computer within the range of another’s wireless connection, and using that service without the subscriber’s explicit permission or knowledge.

During the early popular adoption of 802.11, providing open access points for anyone within range to use was encouraged to cultivate wireless community networks, particularly since people on average use only a fraction of their downstream bandwidth at any given time.

Recreational logging and mapping of other people’s access points has become known as wardriving. Indeed, many access points are intentionally installed without security turned on so that they can be used as a free service. Providing access to one’s Internet connection in this fashion may breach the Terms of Service or contract with the ISP. These activities do not result in sanctions in most jurisdictions; however, legislation and case law differ considerably across the world. A proposal to leave graffiti describing available services was called warchalking. A Florida court case determined that owner laziness was not to be a valid excuse.

Piggybacking often occurs unintentionally – a technically unfamiliar user might not change the default “unsecured” settings to their access point and operating systems can be configured to connect automatically to any available wireless network. A user who happens to start up a laptop in the vicinity of an access point may find the computer has joined the network without any visible indication. Moreover, a user intending to join one network may instead end up on another one if the latter has a stronger signal. In combination with automatic discovery of other network resources (see DHCP and Zeroconf) this could possibly lead wireless users to send sensitive data to the wrong middle-man when seeking a destination (see Man-in-the-middle attack). For example, a user could inadvertently use an unsecure network to log in to a website, thereby making the login credentials available to anyone listening, if the website uses an unsecure protocol such as plain HTTP without TLS (HTTPS).

An unauthorized user can obtain security information (factory preset passphrase and/or Wi-Fi Protected Setup PIN) from a label on a wireless access point can use this information (or connect by the Wi-Fi Protected Setup pushbutton method) to commit unauthorized and/or unlawful activities.


The World Health Organization (WHO) says “no health effects are expected from exposure to RF fields from base stations and wireless networks”, but notes that they promote research into effects from other RF sources. Although the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) later classified radiofrequency electromagnetic fields as “possibly carcinogenic to humans (Group 2B)” (a category used when “a causal association is considered credible, but when chance, bias or confounding cannot be ruled out with reasonable confidence”), this was based on risks associated with wireless phone use rather than Wi-Fi networks.

The United Kingdom’s Health Protection Agency reported in 2007 that exposure to Wi-Fi for a year results in the “same amount of radiation from a 20-minute mobile phone call”.

A review of studies involving 725 people who claimed electromagnetic hypersensitivity, “…suggests that ‘electromagnetic hypersensitivity’ is unrelated to the presence of EMF, although more research into this phenomenon is required.”

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