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IB DP Computer Science Study Notes

3.3.3 Wireless Network Security

In the wireless world, where data flows invisibly through the air, securing information becomes both challenging and crucial. This section delves deep into the security methods for wireless networks, the inherent user data security concerns, and a detailed examination of the strengths and weaknesses associated with each security methodology. Understanding these elements is key for ensuring the integrity and confidentiality of information in a wireless setting.

Methods of Network Security

Security in wireless networks is typically achieved through a mix of encryption types, user ID management, and device filtering via MAC addresses. Each method has unique attributes and caters to different aspects of security.

Encryption Types

Encryption remains the most effective way to secure data on a wireless network by converting the data into a code to prevent unauthorized access.

WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy)

  • Usage: Initially designed to provide confidentiality comparable to that of a traditional wired network.
  • Advantages:
    • Easy to set up and compatible with a broad range of wireless devices.
  • Disadvantages:
    • Uses a static key which is vulnerable to multiple attacks.
    • Limited key size (64-bit and 128-bit), making it easier to crack.

WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access)

  • Usage: Developed as a temporary solution to overcome the vulnerabilities of WEP.
  • Advantages:
    • Uses Temporal Key Integrity Protocol (TKIP) which dynamically changes keys.
  • Disadvantages:
    • TKIP itself became vulnerable to attacks, necessitating further security improvements.


  • Usage: Provides a more robust security framework by incorporating Advanced Encryption Standard (AES).
  • Advantages:
    • Significantly more secure than its predecessors.
    • Mandatory in all new devices since 2006.
  • Disadvantages:
    • Processing power requirements are higher, which may affect older hardware.


  • Usage: Latest security protocol with enhanced features to simplify Wi-Fi security and improve cryptographic strength.
  • Advantages:
    • Offers individualised data encryption to protect against eavesdropping on public networks.
    • Resilient to offline dictionary attacks.
  • Disadvantages:
    • As a new standard, it might not be supported by older devices.


UserIDs are identifiers which allow systems to grant or restrict access to users based on a set of credentials.

  • Advantages:
    • Easy implementation and straightforward user management.
  • Disadvantages:
    • Vulnerable to various attacks, including password guessing and phishing.

Trusted MAC Addresses

Implementing MAC address filtering can control device access to a network.

  • Advantages:
    • Prevents unknown devices from joining the network.
    • Additional layer of security alongside encryption.
  • Disadvantages:
    • MAC addresses can be easily spoofed or imitated.
    • Labor-intensive to manage in environments with many devices.

Concerns Regarding User Data Security on Wireless Networks

Risks to User Data

  • Eavesdropping: Attackers can capture unencrypted wireless data, accessing sensitive information.
  • Unauthorized Access: Weak security protocols enable attackers to gain access to the network, leading to data theft or malicious activities.

Social and Ethical Considerations

  • Digital Divide: Advanced security measures may exclude users with older or less advanced technology, widening the digital divide.
  • Ethical Hacking: Ethical hacking can be employed to test network security. However, distinguishing between ethical and malicious hacking can be challenging.

Evaluating Network Security Methods

Encryption Efficacy

  • Performance Impact: Strong encryption can slow down a network. This needs to be balanced against the required level of security.
  • Compatibility: Higher encryption standards may not be backward compatible, necessitating upgrades in hardware and software.

UserID and MAC Filtering Assessment

  • False Sense of Security: Relying solely on UserID and MAC address filtering can give a false sense of security due to inherent vulnerabilities.
  • Operational Challenges: For large organisations or public networks, managing a large number of users and devices can be impractical.

Keeping Up with Emerging Threats

  • Regular Updates: With new vulnerabilities constantly emerging, it's important to keep firmware and security protocols updated.
  • Education and Awareness: Users should be educated about security best practices, like using strong, unique passwords and recognising phishing attempts.

Final Thoughts

Wireless network security is an evolving field, requiring a balanced approach that considers the strengths and limitations of various security methods. Effective security is not just about choosing the right technology; it also involves being aware of the evolving landscape of threats and maintaining a vigilant stance through both technology and user education. The right mix of encryption, access control, and user behaviour can create a robust security posture for any wireless network.


Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS) is designed to simplify the process of connecting devices to a wireless network, but it can compromise network security. WPS allows users to connect a device to the network using a PIN, which can be brute-forced by attackers, granting them access to the network. Some routers with WPS enabled are susceptible to external attacks, as the WPS PIN is often based on an algorithm related to the device's MAC address or serial number, which can be predictable or obtained by an attacker. Security-conscious users often disable WPS on their routers to prevent such vulnerabilities, opting for the standard SSID and password protection method.

Using open Wi-Fi networks, which lack encryption, poses significant security risks. Since the network is unencrypted, the data transmitted over these networks can be easily intercepted and read by attackers. This vulnerability exposes users to various threats, including eavesdropping, man-in-the-middle attacks, and identity theft. Hackers can also use unsecured Wi-Fi to distribute malware or redirect users to fraudulent websites. To mitigate these risks, users should avoid transmitting sensitive information over open networks, use VPNs, and ensure that the websites they visit use HTTPS. Even simple activities, like checking emails, can be risky if the connection is not secure.

An SSID (Service Set Identifier) is the name given to a wireless network. While broadcasting the SSID allows for easy identification and connection to the network, it also makes the network visible to anyone within range, potentially inviting unwanted access attempts. Hiding the SSID is a method used to conceal the network from public view, ostensibly as a security measure. However, this technique offers minimal security benefits as various network discovery tools can easily detect hidden SSIDs. Furthermore, devices trying to connect to a network with a hidden SSID must broadcast the SSID name more frequently, which can inadvertently expose the network to attackers. Thus, hiding an SSID should not be solely relied upon for network security; it should be part of a more comprehensive security strategy.

In the context of wireless networks, a firewall serves as a security gatekeeper, controlling incoming and outgoing network traffic based on an applied rule set. It protects against unauthorised access and various types of attacks by monitoring and filtering traffic between the network and the internet. Firewalls can be hardware-based, software-based, or a combination of both. They help to block malicious traffic, prevent cyber attacks, and can log attempted intrusions for further analysis. Advanced firewalls can also perform deeper inspections to identify and block threats hidden in encrypted traffic. While highly effective, firewalls need regular updates and proper configuration to adapt to new threats and changing network conditions.

A Virtual Private Network (VPN) enhances wireless network security by creating a secure and encrypted tunnel for data transmission. This encryption protects data from being intercepted or read by unauthorised individuals. VPNs are particularly beneficial in public Wi-Fi networks, where security cannot be guaranteed. By routing the data through secured servers, VPNs mask the user's IP address, providing anonymity and protection from network surveillance and traffic analysis. Additionally, VPNs can bypass geo-restrictions and access location-specific content securely. However, the encryption and rerouting process can sometimes slow down the connection speed, and the security level largely depends on the VPN service provider's protocols and policies.

Practice Questions

Explain the advantages and disadvantages of WPA3 encryption over WPA2 in wireless networks.

WPA3, as the latest encryption standard for wireless networks, offers several advantages over WPA2. Its primary strength lies in its improved security features, such as individualised data encryption, which provides personalised protection on public networks and stronger protection against brute-force attacks, particularly through Simultaneous Authentication of Equals (SAE) protocol that replaces the Pre-Shared Key (PSK) in WPA2. Furthermore, WPA3 offers forward secrecy, preventing data compromise even if a password is exposed. However, the major disadvantage of WPA3 is its compatibility issues. As a newer standard, older devices may not support WPA3, necessitating hardware upgrades, which can be costly and inconvenient. This can be particularly challenging in environments with a broad mix of old and new devices.

Discuss the effectiveness of using MAC address filtering as a security method for wireless networks. Consider both its advantages and disadvantages.

MAC address filtering in wireless networks is advantageous as it allows network administrators to control device access, providing an additional layer of security by only permitting recognised devices to connect. This can help prevent unauthorised access and reduce the risk of network attacks. However, the effectiveness of MAC address filtering as a standalone security measure is limited due to several disadvantages. MAC addresses can be easily spoofed; attackers can imitate authorised addresses, thereby bypassing the filter. Furthermore, managing MAC address filtering can become cumbersome in large networks with many devices, as each device needs to be individually configured and maintained. This makes it less practical for larger or dynamic environments and should ideally be used in conjunction with more robust security measures like WPA2 or WPA3 encryption.

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Written by: Alfie
Cambridge University - BA Maths

A Cambridge alumnus, Alfie is a qualified teacher, and specialises creating educational materials for Computer Science for high school students.

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