Every time I write about wireless networking, I receive a lot of email from readers who want to remind me of how insecure wireless networking is and about how simple it is to crack the Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) standard that the current generation of wireless networking devices implement. Despite these predictions of doom, I've never heard from anyone whose network security was actually compromised by a WEP crack. But that reality, of course, doesn't make the basic problem go away. Eventually, script tools to crack WEP will be available to the average user.
To prevent wireless network security from becoming a malicious hacker free-for-all, the Wi-Fi Alliance has developed a set of standards that are forward-compatible with the forthcoming IEEE 802.11i security protocol, which is scheduled for release at the end of the year. The new standard, called Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA), is designed to provide a much higher level of security for wireless users than existing WEP standards provide. Various vendors announced several WPA products at the end of April.
The WPA specification makes allowances both for network-based authentication for corporate networks and for a special home mode for use in a small office/home office (SOHO) or home-user environment. WPA is capable of interoperating with WEP devices, although in cases of interoperability, the default security for the entire wireless infrastructure reverts to the WEP standard. WPA's network-based authentication can make use of existing authentication technologies such as Remote Authentication Dial-In User Service (RADIUS) servers, so adding the secure technology that WPA represents won't disrupt existing network infrastructures too much.
For WPA to work, users need to upgrade the software on all their wireless network adapters, access points, and client programs. Microsoft offers WPA client software for Windows XP users at http://microsoft.com/downloads/details.aspx?FamilyId=009D8425-CE2B-47A4-ABEC-274845DC9E91&displaylang=en . You'll find an overview about how WPA will work in XP at http://support.microsoft.com/default.aspx?scid=kb;en-us;815485 .
You can find complete details of the Wi-Fi Alliance proposal at http://www.weca.net/OpenSection/protected_access.asp . Simple descriptions and complete technical white papers are also available on the site. As you become current with advances in wireless technology, you might also hear about the following wireless standards:
802.11b: 11Mbps wireless standard with backward compatibility with older 2Mbps system
802.11a: 54Mbps wireless standard with no backward compatibility
802.11: 54Mbps wireless standard
802.11i: forthcoming wireless networking security standard
For general information about all of the wireless networking standards, check out the IEEE 802.11 Working Group page at http://grouper.ieee.org/groups/802/11/ .