RSNA with 802.11i | Wi-Fi Security Technologies

802.11i addresses the major problems with WEP. The first problem, the inability to establish per-connection keys, and the inability to use different encryption algorithms, was fixed by a better protocol.
On top ofthat, 802.11i introduced two new encryption and integrity algorithms. Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA), version one, was created to quickly work around the problems of WEP without requiring significant changes to the hardware that devices were built out of. WPA introduced the Temporal Key Integrity Protocol (TKIP), which sits on top of WEP and fixes many of the problems of WEP without requiring new hardware. TKIP was designed intentionally as a transition, or stopgap, protocol, with the hopes that devices would be quickly retired and replaced with those that supported the permanent solution, the second of the two algorithms.
Wi-Fi Protected Access version 2 (WPA2), as that permanent solution, required completely new hardware by not worrying about backwards compatibility. WPA2 uses AES to provide better security and eliminate the problems of using a linear stream cipher. A better integrity algorithm ensures that the packet has not been altered, and eliminates some of the denial-of-service weaknesses that needed to be introduced into TKIP to let it ward off some of the attacks that can't be directly stopped.
A word, first, on nomenclature. For those of you in the know, you might know that WPA has both TKIP and AES modes, 802.11i has slightly different TKIP and AES modes, and that both were harmonized in WPA2. However, practically, there really is no need to know that. For the remainder of this chapter, I will use WPA to mean TKIP as defined in WPA, WPA2 to mean AES as defined in the standard, and 802.11i to mean the framework under which WPA and WPA2 operate. This is actually industry convention—WPA and TKIP go hand in hand, and WPA2 and AES go hand in hand—so product documentation will most likely match with this use of the terms, but when there is doubt, ask your vendors whether they mean TKIP or AES.
802.11i first introduced the idea of a per-connection key negotiation. Each client that comes into the network must first associate. For WEP, which has no per-connection key, the client always used the user-entered WEP key, which is the same for every connection. But 802.11i introduces an additional step, to allow for a fresh set of per-connection keys every time, yet still based on the same master key.
Networks may still used preshared keys. These are now bumped up to be 128 bits long. For WPA or WPA2, this mode of security is known as Personal, because the preshared key method was intended for home use. Enterprises can also use 802.1X and a RADIUS server to negotiate a unique key per device. This mode of security is known as Enterprise. For example, "WPA2 Enterprise" refers to using WPA2 with 802.1X. Either way, the overall key is called the pairwise master key (PMK). This is the analog to the original WEP key.
Now, when the client associates, it has to run a four-message protocol, known as the four-way handshake, to determine what should be used as the key for the connection, known as the PTK (the pairwise temporal key or pairwise transient key). This whole concept of derived keys is known as a key hierarchy.
The four way handshake is made of unencrypted data frames, with Ethernet type of EAPOL (0×888E), and show up as the specific type of Extensible Authentication Protocol over LAN (EAPOL) message known as an EAPOL Key message. These four messages can be seen by wireless capture programs, and mark the opening of the data link between the client and the access point. Before the four-way handshake, clients and access points cannot exchange any data besides EAPOL frames. After the handshake, both sides can use the agreed-upon key to send data.
Message 1 of the four-way handshake is sent by the access point to the client, and signals the security settings of the access point (as contained in something called theRSN IE, shown in Table 1). The RSN IE contains the selection of encryption and integrity algorithms. The message also contains something called a nonce, which is a random number that the access point constructs (more on this shortly) and which will be mixed in with the PMK to produce the PTK.
Table 1: The security settings in the RSN IE 
Element ID
Group Cipher Suite
Pairwise Cipher Suite Count
Pairwise Cipher Suite List
AKM Suite Count
AKM Suite List
RSN Capabilities
1 bytes
1 byte
2 bytes
4 bytes
2 bytes
n bytes
2 bytes
m bytes
2 bytes
2 bytes
Message 2 is sent in response, from the client to the access point, and includes the same information, but from the client: a client RSN IE, and a client nonce. Once the client has chosen its nonce, it has enough information to produce the PTK on its end. The PTK is derived from the two nonces, the addresses of the access point and client, and the PMK. At this point, it might seem like the protocol is done: the client knows enough to construct a PTK before sending Message 2, and the access point, once it gets the message, can use the same information to construct its own PTK. If the two devices share the same PMK—the master key—then they will pick the same PTK, and packets will flow. This is true, but the protocol needs to do a little bit more work to handle the case where the PMKs do not agree. To do this, the client "signs" Message 2 with a message integrity code (MIC). The MIC used is a cryptographic hash based on both the contents of the message and the key (PTK). Thus, the access point, once it derives its own PTK from its PMK and the nonces, can check to see whether the client's sent MIC matches what it would generate using its own PTK. If they match, then the access point knows that message 2 is not a forgery and the client has the right key. If they do not match, then the access point drops the message.
If Message 2 is correct, then Message 3 is sent by the access point, and is similar to Message 1 except that it too is now "signed" by the MIC. This lets the client know that the access point has the right key: at Message 2, only the access point could detect an attacker, but not the client. Also, the client can now verify that the access point is using the same security algorithms as the client—a mismatch would only occur if an attacker is injecting false RSN IEs into the network to try to get one side or both to negotiate to a weaker algorithm (say, TKIP) if a stronger algorithm (say, AES) is available. Finally, for WPA2, the client learns of the multicast key, the group temporal key(GTK), this way, as it is encrypted with the PTK and sent as the last part of the message.
Message 4 is a response from the client to the access point, and validates that the client got Message 3 and installed all of the correct keys.
The nonces exist to prove to each side that the other side is not replaying these messages— that is, that the other side is alive and is not an attacker. Imagine that the access point sends its nonce. An attacker trying to replay a previous, valid handshake for the same client could send an old Message 2, but the MIC on that Message 2 can never be correct, because it would always be based on the access point nonce recorded previously and was used in that previous handshake, and not the new one that the access point just created. Thus, the access point always can tell the difference between a client that is really there, and one that is just replayed from the past. The client can use its nonce to do the same thing. Also, if either side has the wrong PMK—which would happen with preshared keys if someone typed one of the keys wrong—the devices can catch it in the four-way handshake and not pretend to have a working connection.
Overall, the four-way handshake lets the two sides come together on a fresh connection key every time. The four way handshake is the same, except for some minor details such as choice of algorithm, for WPA and WPA2.
By the way, keep in mind that the four-way handshake is only designed to provide a new PTK every time based on the same PMK, to provide a fresh PTK and eliminate the problem of old or stale keys that WEP has. The four-way handshake is not designed to hide the PTK from attackers who have the PMK. This is an important point: if an attacker happens to know the PMK already—such as a preshared key that he or she stole or remembered—then every PTK ever generated from that PMK, in the past and in the future, can be broken with minimal effort. This is known as a lack of forward secrecy and is a major security flaw in preshared key networks.
In other words, you must keep the PMK secret. Do not share preshared keys, ever—even if you have stopped using that preshared key and moved to a new one long ago. If an attacker had been recording your past conversations, when the old preshared key was in use, and someone leaks the preshared key to this attacker, your old conversations are in jeopardy.

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