Q: “My home wifi network uses the WPA (WiFi Protected Access) security protocol, which I’ve always been told is virtually hack-proof. I’m wondering how hard it would be for a dedicated hacker to break into my network. Could a hacker actually do that?”
A: Almost all home wifi networks these days use WPA or WPA2 for their security protocols, which have long been considered to be the best wifi security available.
However, Dan Goodin recently published an article in Ars Technica that detailed how, with the right tools, he was able to crack his neighbor’s WPA protected wifi network. It’s pretty sobering stuff.
But before we get into that, let’s go through a quick primer.
WPA (Wifi Protected Access) is a wifi security protocol that is used to protect wireless networks, most likely including the one you use at home.
WPA replaced WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) in 2001 after several serious weaknesses were discovered in WEP that made it easy for hackers to crack. When you set up your wifi network, you provide your router with a password that is between 8 and 63 characters long (the longer the better).
Using an encryption protocol called TKIP (Temporal Key Integrity Protocol), your password and the network’s name are used to generate unique encryption keys for each computer on your network. These encryption keys are constantly refreshed to avoid being stolen by hackers.
WPA2 is an upgrade of WPA and uses more advanced encryption protocols that are more efficient and difficult to crack. Up until now, WPA and WPA2 wifi networks have been considered nearly impossible to crack.
But as Goodin explains in his article, although WPA and WPA2 networks are extremely robust and can slow down hacking attacks, they cannot stop all attacks. With the right tools and a little bit of time, he was able to hack into his neighbor’s wifi network.
How He Did It
Without getting too technical, he first had to use a free software tool called Aircrack-ng to establish a “handshake” to the network he was trying to hack.
A handshake means that the network recognized his computer. Dan then took the network’s packet capture (pcap) file, which contained the network’s data traffic, to a website called CloudCracker. CloudCracker charges $17 to check a wifi password against 604 million possible passwords using a network’s packet capture file.
He also used another site that charged $34 to check against 1.2 billion passwords. Using these two websites, it took him only an hour and a half to crack his neighbor’s 10-digit, all-numerical password.
Protect Your Wifi Network
Before you panic, keep in mind that good, strong passwords are long ones. And WPA and WPA2 allow for passwords that contain up to 63 characters.
So what this means is that you should use as many characters as possible for your home wifi network. The more characters you use in your password, the better. Hackers are more likely to break into wifi networks that are poorly protected. If they can’t break into yours after a few minutes, they are likely to move on to easier targets.
The moral of this story is that while WPA and WPA networks can be hacked with the right equipment and a determined hacker, the best defense is a strong password.