What is a Network Security Key?
A network security key, also known as a wireless password or Wi-Fi password, is an encryption key used to secure access to a wireless network. It serves as a password to connect devices like laptops, smartphones, and other gadgets to the network via Wi-Fi. The key is used to authenticate devices attempting to connect to the network and encrypt traffic flowing between devices and the wireless router.
Purpose of Network Security Keys
Network security keys serve several important functions:
- Access control – The key allows only authorized users who know the correct password to connect to the network. This prevents unauthorized access.
- Encryption – The key is used to encrypt data transmitted over the wireless network. This makes it harder for hackers to intercept and read transmitted information.
- Integrity – Encryption provided by the key also ensures data remains intact and is not altered during transmission.
- Identification – The network name (SSID) and key identify the wireless network and distinguish it from other nearby networks.
Without a network security key, wireless networks are vulnerable to unauthorized access and eavesdropping. Strong security keys are essential for securing Wi-Fi networks in homes and businesses.
Types of Network Security Keys
There are several different types of security keys used on wireless networks:
- WEP – Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) keys use a simple encryption standard which is now considered obsolete and insecure. Most modern Wi-Fi networks use more advanced key types.
- WPA – Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) greatly improved on WEP and uses stronger encryption through temporal keys. WPA2 is the most up-to-date version.
- WPA2 – WPA2 uses the strongest standard available today using AES encryption. It is currently the recommended standard for wireless security keys.
- WPA3 – An emerging standard that further strengthens encryption and security protocols. It is not yet widely available.
Keys can also come in two major forms:
- Passphrase – This is a string of text set as the password. It is converted into an encrypted key.
- Hexadecimal key – This looks like a string of random numbers and letters. It is a pre-converted encrypted key.
A strong key should be complex, at least 8 characters long, and use a mixture of letters, numbers and symbols to make it harder to crack.
Setting Up a Network Security Key
To configure a strong network key:
- Access the settings on the wireless router and locate the wireless security section.
- Select the WPA2 encryption type if available (alternatively WPA or WPA3).
- Enter a new network name (SSID) if the default should be changed.
- Enter a new security key passphrase, making it as long and complex as possible.
- Save settings and connect devices to the network using the new key.
The exact steps depend on the router brand and model. Instructions should be provided in the router’s user manual. Some may generate a key automatically.
Regularly changing the network security key is also recommended to enhance security, especially if the passphrase leaks or unauthorized access is suspected. Proper use and management of security keys is crucial for implementing robust wireless protection.
Key Security Best Practices
To keep network security keys secure:
Use complex and unique passphrases
Keys should be at minimum 8-10 characters combining upper and lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols without real words.
Change default keys
Routers come with default keys, so it’s important to set a new unique key during setup.
Don’t share the key publicly
Never post the key online or share it with anyone outside of trusted users.
Change keys periodically
Update the network key every 6-12 months to stay ahead of any unauthorized access.
Use WPA2 or WPA3 encryption
Make sure the router is using the latest WPA2 or WPA3 protocols and encryption standards.
Key Management for Large Networks
For organizations with many users:
Use a password manager
IT can distribute keys securely using a password manager system.
Separate guest network keys
Have a separate guest network with unique keys for visitor access.
Use RADIUS servers
Corporate networks often authenticate against a RADIUS server instead of using shared passphrases.
The 802.1X standard provides port-based network access control using dynamic encryption keys.
Securing Keys and User Access
Turn off Wifi Protected Setup if available – it allows easy connection and key reset.
Use MAC address filtering
Only permit devices with designated MAC addresses to connect.
Keep router firmware updated
Make sure the router operating system and firmware is updated to fix vulnerabilities.
Use end-to-end encryption
Technologies like VPNs and HTTPS provide encryption beyond the local wireless network.