The good folks at the Wi-Fi Alliance have taken a fine security product and smashed it to smithereens by adding a poorly thought out feature. The damage affects most new Wi-Fi routers and will take years to fully repair, since must users will never hear about it.
We're all familiar with Wi-Fi, the technology that literally unleashed the Internet by eliminating the Ethernet cable that tied our computers to the wall. Wi-Fi is nurtured by an industry trade association know as the Wi-Fi Alliance that was formed in 1999 to insure that products using a wireless networking standard known as IEEE 802.11 could all work together. Complex standards like 802.11 have lots of options and typically leave some issues unaddressed. Manufacturers of wireless products based on 802.11 can choose among options and fill in the missing pieces in ways that prevent their products from talking to products made by other manufacturers. The Wi-fi Alliance tied up those loose ends in a way that insures interoperability. The "Wi-Fi" trademark is owned by the alliance and manufacturers who do things the way the alliance recommends get to use the Wi-Fi Certified mark on their products.
One issue that the original 802.11 spec did not properly address is security. The older wired Ethernet standard for joining computers to networks provided a modest level of security, in that you needed to plug the cable in to a network outlet. That usually meant you had to at least get inside the building where the network was located and do your mischief there. Wi-Fi, on the other hand, is wireless. Each Wi-Fi device is miniature radio station, often broadcasting beyond the walls of the place where it is used. The signals can often be picked up from an adjacent parking lot or even hundred of meters away, by using a high gain directional antenna.
The Wi-Fi Alliance alliance recognized that more security was needed and included something called Wired Equivalent Privacy or WEP in their early recommendations. WEP, as the name implies, was intend to roughly match the modest security provided by the earlier wired systems. It didn't even accomplish that. Flaws in the WEP encryption algorithm allow it to be broken in a few minutes.
The Wi-Fi Alliance responded by developing a much stronger security system called Wi-Fi Protected Access or WPA. Developing a good encryption system is always tricky, but Wi-Fi Alliance faced an additional challenge in that many wireless device already sold had just enough computing power to implement WEP. WPA had to be retrofitted to those devices and that took a lot of ingenuity.
Meanwhile the IEEE committee responsible for 802.11 also took up the security challenge and produced an encryption protocol for wireless called 802.11i that avoided the compromises needed for WPA but took more compute power. The alliance adopted 802.11i as WPA2 and all newer Wi-Fi certified devices do WPA2.
Encryption systems scramble messages based on a key and all encryption schemes face need a way for senders and recipients to exchange those keys securely. WPA and WPA2 have a fancy way of doing this in corporate environments that requires special security servers, but for individual users and smaller organizations, Wi-Fi security depends on a secret password they call a "Pre-shared Key" (PSK) that all devices on a network must possess .
Though WPA and WPA2 take steps to slow down the rate at which passwords can be tested, the steady increase in computing power available for a given cost, especially the availability graphics processors that have hundreds of general purpose computing elements, has made it possible to rapidly try large numbers of passwords to find the correct one. These days short passwords, even with the 8 character minimum length that the Wi-Fi Alliance recommends, can be broken with inexpensive computing equipment.
Users can overcome this problem by using a longer password or pass phrase. I recommend a minimum of 6 randomly chosen short words and provide a simple tool, Diceware (www.diceware.com), that lets you create a random passphrase using ordinary dice. With a long enough pass phrase, WPA and especially WPA2 are quite strong.
Or so it seemed.
The Wi-Fi Alliance was concerned that the process of selecting and entering a good password or pass phrase was too complicated for the average user. Alliance members also wanted to sell a variety of special devices that did not have a full keyboard with which to enter a pass phase. So they came up with another recommendation, WiFi Protected Setup or WPS.
WPS offers several ways to add a device to a Wi-Fi network. One method, Push Button Connect, uses two push buttons, a button on the unit seeking access and the other button on the Wi-Fi router. Press both buttons within two minutes of each other and the two devices exchange all the information they need to add the new device to the network.
Another method uses an 8-digit number the Wi-Fi Alliance refers to as a PIN. (PIN usually stands for Personal Identification Number, but we get the idea.) Each router that meets the WPS certification requirements has a PIN. You can enter that PIN into a device seeking network access and it calls your Wi-Fi router on the radio. The router asks the device for the PIN and if it has the correct number, the router gives the device the networks pass phrase and it's welcomed into the network.
Here's where things get nasty.
It turns out that the WPS protocol breaks the 8-digit PIN into two have and tests them separately. A wrong PIN generates different errors depending on whether the first four digits failed to match or the last four were wrong. This lets an attacker test the two halves separately, a huge security gaff, cutting the maximum number of combinations to be tested from many millions to just 20,000.
To get their grade in Security 101 from D- to F, the designers of WPS included a check digit in the 8 digit PIN, so an attacker who has gotten the first 4 digits, 5000 attempts needed on average, only needs 500 more guesses on average to get the whole PIN. Note that there is absolutely no need for a check sum in a situation like this. If a user copies the wrong number from the label on the device, the security protocol itself will provide the needed warning. From security standpoint, the longer the PIN, the better; the only limit on PIN size is the patience of the human user. So why waste a digit on a check sum?
Software has been published on the Internet that takes advantage of this WPS hole to break most recent Wi-Fi router's security in a few hours.
Even without this hole, the way WPS was typically implemented presented security problems. Having the PIN number right on the router means anyone who get physical access to it can write down, photograph ore even memorize your PIN. Once they have the magic number, they can connect to your network whenever they wish. Most routers do not allow you to change the PIN (TP_Link is an exception). So if you think your PIN may have been stolen, there's nothing you can do about it except buy a new router.
There a variety of solutions to these problems, depending on whether you are a user or a router manufacturer.
Fixes for users
If you're a user, first, determine if your wireless router has the WPS feature. Look for a label on the router with a bunch of long numbers, typically a serial number,pone or more MAC addresses and so on. See if there is a 8-digit decimal number, like 1234-5678 on the label, that is a WPS PIN. It may be marked PIN, WPS, QSS or with an icon showing two arrows pointed at each other's tails. In general, that likely means you have WPS and the security problem. One exception is Verizon's FIOS routers. According to their manual, the WPS feature is not working yet, but was to be enabled by a future firmware release so there is a PIN on their label. Procrastination pays.
One you've determined you have WPS, your best option is to disable it. Many Belkin, DLink, Netgear and TP-Link models allow this. Many Cisco models currently do not. If you can't disable WPS on your router, check your junk closet for an older model that lacks WPS, which you could put back in service while your router manufacturer gets its act together. (Call their customer support line and ask when a fix can be expected. They need to hear from you.) Absent that, if security is important consider buying a new router from one of the manufacturers that currently let you disable WPS.
While your at it, write down you WPS PIN and put it in a safe place, then cover it over with paint, nail polish or tape to protect it from casual glances.
The simplest way to fix router firmware
Here is a very simple fix for router manufacturers who want to get a patch out quickly:
Disable the WPS feature after, say, five successive failed PIN entries and have the count reset to zero whenever the router is powered off and on. This fix would be very simple to implement in firmware, requiring no change to the user interface, no persistent parameter storage and little end user education. Users are already used to the idea of turning power off and on when they encounter a problem, so they would likely figure out what to do if their WPS stopped working.
The needed changes to router firmware are extremely simple and easy to code-review and test: There would be one new variable. It would be set to zero during power up initialization. It would be tested to make sure it hasn't exceeded the threshold before any remote PIN registration attempt is allowed, if not it would be incremented by one whenever a remote PIN registration attempt fails and and set to zero whenever a remote PIN registration attempt succeeds.
The ideal fix
The idle fix would combine the above with the ability to change the PIN and the ability to turn WPS off if desired. A warning message if excessive bad WPS attempts were detected would be handy.
Check back here. I'll post more info when I get it.