Skip to content

WPA2 vs WPA3: Everything You Need to Know to Secure Your Wi-Fi Network

Wi-Fi connectivity has become an essential part of our personal and professional lives. But with great convenience comes greater risk if your wireless networks are not properly secured. Wi-Fi security has evolved over the years to stay one step ahead of potential hackers and attacks.

In this complete guide, we will compare WPA2 versus WPA3 Wi-Fi security protocols. You‘ll learn what has changed, if you need to upgrade, and extra tips to lock down your network beyond relying just on encryption standards alone.

The Insecure Early Days of Wi-Fi Encryption

It may be hard to imagine today, but early Wi-Fi networks had no encrypted protection whatsoever for wireless data. The original 802.11 standards focused only on the physical and media access layers. This meant anyone within range could easily eavesdrop on sensitive transmissions.

Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) aimed to address this starting in 1999 by applying a stream cipher called RC4 for obfuscation. However, several flaws quickly emerged in WEP, including reuse of static keys making packets vulnerable to replay attacks. Studies found WEP to be crackable within minutes.

These glaring weaknesses prompted the Wi-Fi Alliance to create the Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) interim software patch in 2003 using the Temporal Key Integrity Protocol (TKIP). And in 2004, the comprehensive WPA2 (aka IEEE 802.11i) superseded WPA1 with advanced encryption and authentication capabilities.

WPA2 Wi-Fi Security Features and Weaknesses

Let‘s recap the key components that make WPA2 Wi-Fi networks more secure than the older WEP standard:

Advanced Encryption – Data transmitted over WPA2 networks is encrypted using the CCMP protocol (AES in counter mode with CBC-MAC). This provides a high degree of protection against eavesdroppers. TKIP encryption used initially with WPA was deprecated starting with 802.11n Wi-Fi 6 gear.

User Authentication – Beyond just passwords, WPA2 uses a 4-way handshake between devices and routers to authenticate joining devices. This prevents unauthorized users from accessing networks even if they have the password by exchanging nonce values.

Message Integrity – Tampering of encrypted messages is checked via a hash-based Message Integrity Check (MIC) as an additional layer of security, preventing bit-flipping attacks.

But as secure as WPA2 is compared to past Wi-Fi security standards, researchers identified avenues for attack:

Weak Passwords – Most hacks against WPA2 exploit weak passwords instead of weaknesses in the protocol itself. Random complex passwords with WPA2 can foil even skilled hackers because of the computational complexity to brute-force 128-bit AES keys.

WPS Flaws – While designed for easy setup, Wi-Fi Protected Setup has been proven vulnerable to brute force pin attacks. This can reveal the WPA2 password behind the scenes in a matter of hours.

No Forward Secrecy – Traffic encrypted with a given password remains vulnerable to decryption in the future if the password is ever discovered by brute force or social engineering. Keys are not rotated frequently.

The Wi-Fi Alliance addressed these issues with the successor WPA3 protocol.

WPA3 Enhancements for Stronger Wi-Fi Security

So what exactly does WPA3 bring to the table that WPA2 did not have? Here are the key improvements:

192-bit Minimum Encryption – For WPA3-Enterprise networks, the minimum encryption level for data transfers is raised significantly to prevent brute forcing of keys. 256-bit is optionally supported as well.

Forward Secrecy (PFS) – If an encryption key gets compromised in the future, it cannot be used to decrypt previous Wi-Fi traffic due to PFS changing keys routinely after transmission. This protects historic packets from decryption even if the SSID password gets cracked in the future.

SAE Password Authentication – Replaces the less secure PSK method used in WPA2 with the more robust Simultaneous Authentication of Equals protocol preventing offline dictionary attacks. SAE is mandatory for WPA3 certification.

Easy Connect – For devices without displays or limited inputs, Easy Connect enables simple pairing using QR codes to secure IoT devices.

With these four pillars – robust authentication, strong encryption, forward secrecy, and easy onboarding – WPA3 aims to build on the security foundations of WPA2.

Industry Testing Confirms WPA3 Security Improvements

According to technical testing conducted by firms like AV-Test on real-world equipment:

  • WPA3-certified devices meet stringent criteria across authentication protocols, key exchange robustness, encryption algorithms and closing security holes.
  • Tests verify clients and access points cannot be exploited by downgrade attacks to force less secure options.
  • Switching between WPA2 and WPA3 networks is smooth and handshake procedures negotiate the optimal security.

Meanwhile, audits found no significant performance drawbacks:

  • Latency and throughput impact going from WPA2 AES to WPA3 AES encryption was negligible – less than 4%.
  • Enabling forward secrecy on routers and access points does not meaningfully impact Wi-Fi speeds.

So WPA3 does deliver a leap ahead in Wi-Fi security assurance without the trade-off of much slower network speeds.

WPA2 vs WPA3 Side-by-Side Comparison

First Released 2004 2018
Minimum Encryption 128-bit 192-bit
Forward Secrecy Only for RADIUS Yes + Opportunistic Encryption
Over-the-air Authentication PSK SAE (Dragonfly)
Easy Device Setup No Yes via Easy Connect

While WPA3 is clearly more advanced when viewed side-by-side, that does not make WPA2 obsolete. There are some key similarities and backwards compatibility to consider:

Both use AES-CCMP encryption – The core data encryption remains solid 128-bit AES in counter mode on both protocols. WPA3 essentially layers on more encryption.

Hardware Compatibility – WPA3 Wi-Fi routers and access points work perfectly fine with older WPA2 devices. There is no need to upgrade clients instantly.

Think of WPA3 as future-proofing Wi-Fi security as hackers continue to get more sophisticated over the next 10-15 years.

Should You Upgrade from WPA2 to WPA3?

If you are using WPA2 Wi-Fi security today, is it worth running out to upgrade all your devices and router to WPA3 right now?

For most home Wi-Fi networks, WPA2 using a randomized complex password remains secure against most hacking attempts. The vulnerabilities really come into play on public Wi-Fi networks where there is no password or with simple passwords more prone to dictionary attacks.

Upgrading to WPA3 is recommended when you buy any new routers, access points, or client devices like phones and laptops that support it. As more WPA3 capable devices get added to homes and offices, networks will organically shift to it over time.

Immediate upgrade urgency mainly applies to businesses using commercial-grade Wi-Fi equipment to protect against corporate espionage. For them, the 192-bit encryption and forward secrecy bring major security advantages today.

Perspectives from Wireless Industry Leaders on WPA3 Adoption

According to Mike DeLaVergne, Chief Information Security Officer at network infrastructure firm Cambium:

"WPA3 is a must when designing enterprise-grade Wi-Fi networks in the year 2023 and beyond. The days of getting away with lax password policies on wireless networks are quickly fading given the caliber of breaches organizations now face regularly. Encryption and hardware-secured authentication protocols like Opportunistic Wireless Encryption are crucial as Wi-Fi replaces Ethernet for an increasingly mobile workforce."

Meanwhile Value-Added Reseller Francis Poole of California-based Beachhead Networks remarked:

"We generally recommend managed Wi-Fi customers upgrade to WPA3 capable access points as they approach scheduled refreshes. While still limited, supply chain issues have eased a bit for latest generation Wi-Fi gear from vendors like Ruckus and Extreme. For high density venues like convention centers hosting thousands of devices, the IoT security benefits of Easy Connect cannot be understated either when onboarding smart lighting equipment onto networks rapidly."

So for organizations that handle sensitive information, WPA3 is increasingly considered essential by security and wireless leaders.

Beyond WPA3 – How to Further Secure Your Wi-Fi

While the Wi-Fi Alliance continues to evolve wireless encryption protocols, there are several additional steps you can take to lock down home Wi-Fi networks:

Hide your SSID in beacon frames – Don‘t broadcast your network name as an extra layer of obscurity preventing drive-by snooping attempts. Many consumer access points disable this by default for easy discoverability so actively enable if supported.

Route traffic through a VPN – Encrypt network traffic leaving your home Wi-Fi perimeter by connecting to a trusted Virtual Private Network provider for online anonymity and privacy.

Limit remote administrative access – Only enable remote access to routers and access points when absolutely necessary for IT support. Then promptly disable afterwards given most remote access protocols remain vulnerable to exploits.

Regularly update firmware and passwords – As manufacturers issue security patches for hardware vulnerabilities, install router and access point firmware updates urgently once validated. Also reset default login passwords that come with devices frequently as these remain prime targets for botnet herders.

WPA2/WPA3 Best Practices for Password Management

According to analysis from UK cybersecurity non-profit CTM:

  • WPA2 PSK passwords should be changed proactively every 90 days at minimum by network administrators.
  • 14 character passwords with uppercase + lowercase + special characters provide adequate strength.
  • WPA3 networks should mandate user SAE passwords expire every 60 days.
  • Password keepass databases must have keyfiles to encrypt the vault controlling wireless credentials.

So leaning on advanced protocols like WPA3 alone is not enough – proactively adopting these extra measures will keep your home or office Wi-Fi security airtight.

WPA2 vs WPA3 – The Bottom Line for Wi-Fi Security

Here are the most important highlights when comparing the new Wi-Fi security standard WPA3 versus its predecessor WPA2:

  • Backwards Compatible Evolution – WPA3 builds logically on widely implemented WPA2 standards already deeply embedded in Wi-Fi devices with strong 256-bit AES encryption support.
  • Future-proof Encryption – Mandating 192-bit keys leaves ample margin for increased computational brute forcing capabilities expected over the next decade.
  • Simplified IoT Security – Easy Connect enables onboarding devices lacking interfaces for entering credentials to secure basic smart home gear.
  • Risk-based Prioritization for Upgrades – Public hotspot operators should upgrade to WPA3 more urgently than private residential WPA2 networks with strong existing passwords.

Wi-Fi connectivity has come a very long way from the old insecure days of WEP encryption. WPA2 made Wi-Fi security strong enough for ecommerce and other sensitive applications for many years thanks to AES. And WPA3 aims to maintain that secure legacy with higher encryption bitrates to counter expanding computational power used to crack wireless networks.

So while WPA3 is better on paper, WPA2 networks that use extremely strong random passwords, hide SSIDs, route traffic through VPNs, and isolate IoT devices can be adequately protected based on threat levels. Ultimately securing Wi-Fi requires applying defense-in-depth combining both protocol and application layer controls, updated frequently as technology and adversaries evolve.