For a local Wi-Fi network to be secure, it should authenticate users before allowing them to connect. It should also protect their data as it passes over the network using encryption. WEP and WPA are two different standards for securing wireless networks, one of which is now considered insecure (WEP).
Why do you need WiFi security?
By encrypting data between a network device and the router, that data is secured against eavesdroppers. Strong authentication ensures that nobody untrusted or unverified can join a WiFi network without a password.
That authentication also makes it much harder for a hacker to intercept a specific user's data – or to inject packets into that person's traffic (piggybacking).
In 2020, the best security for a wireless network is Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA). This is a security certification program developed by the Wi-Fi Alliance to secure wireless computer networks. The standard is now onto its third version (WPA3).
What is WEP?
Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) is a security standard for wireless networks that dates back to 1997. It was developed to provide data privacy and security levels to a wireless local area network (WLAN) that is comparable to that of a conventional wired network.
WEP functions by adding encryption to the data that is being transmitted wirelessly. This prevents data from being intercepted as it passes through the air – and ensures that other users are unable to eavesdrop on private and confidential data transmissions over the WLAN.
Back in 1997, WEP was considered state-of-the-art. Since then, many bugs have been discovered and developments in technology have rendered the protocol vulnerable. For this reason, it was completely deprecated in 2004.
At that time, WPA took its place as the new standard for robust consumer-level wireless encryption. Despite this, modern routers still support WEP for purposes of backward compatibility.
While it is usually unlikely that you will run into networks running WEP as their primary form of security (because it has been surpassed for a very long time), it is theoretically possible that you might run into a network using an old router. Under these circumstances, you might actually connect using insecure WEP.
It is due to these potential variances in security standards that it is generally recommended that you always use a VPN on public WiFi networks to ensure that your data is strongly encrypted before it passes from your device and over the WLAN.
What is WPA?
Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) is the wireless security protocol developed to replace WEP. WPA1 was an interim software-implementable solution for WEP designed to prevent the need for the immediate deployment of new hardware.
In 2004, WPA2 was ratified, and it has been the predominant standard for secure wireless communication since then. The WPA protocol is now onto its third iteration (WPA3). That recent version has been updated to patch previously unknown vulnerabilities and to increase the security of the protocol in an attempt to make it future-proof.
WPA3 was released in January 2018 by the Wi-Fi Alliance, and, eventually, it will completely replace WPA2 (which will become deprecated). For the time being, however, WPA2 remains secure, and it will take a reasonably long time to phase-out WPA2 from wireless networks around the world completely.
That said, we are officially now in the transition phase between the two, and businesses that want to keep their networks at the forefront – in terms of privacy and security – have got the option to implement WPA3 right away. Read our in-depth guide to find out more about WPA wireless security.