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WEP Protocol architecture

Copied from: http://www.ouah.org/wirelessvuln.htm

802.11 defines an optional WEP mechanism to provide confidentiality and integrity of traffic in the WLAN. WEP is used at the two lowest layers of the Open Systems Interconnect (OSI) reference model, data link and physical layers; thereby, it does not offer end-to-end security. WEP depends on a secret key shared between the communicating parties (mobile station and AP) to protect the payload of a transmitted frame in each direction. Moreover, the RC4 PRNG algorithm used by WEP includes an integrity check vector (ICV) to check the integrity of each packet. This process is summarized below.

First, WEP computes the ICV by performing a 32-bit cyclical redundancy check (CRC-32) of the frame and appends the vector to the original frame, resulting in the plaintext. Then, the message plus ICV is encrypted via the RC4 PRNG algorithm using a long sequence key stream – a long sequence of pseudorandom bits. This key stream is a function of the 40-bit secret key (which is shared between all authorized stations in the WLAN) and a 24-bit initialization vector (IV). Consequently, an exclusive-or (XOR) operation is made between the plaintext and the key stream to produce the ciphertext. Finally, it is the ciphertext that is sent over the radio link. Theoretically, the ciphertext provides data integrity because of the ICV and confidentiality due to encryption.

The receiver, inasmuch as RC4 PRNG algorithm is symmetric, performs the same procedure described above, but in reverse, to retrieve the original message frame. Specifically, the ciphertext is decrypted using a duplicated key stream to recover the plaintext. The recipient then validates the checksum on this plaintext by computing the ICV and comparing it to the last 32 bits of the plaintext, thus ensuring that only frames with a valid checksum will be accepted by the receiver.

WEP can be implemented with the classic 40-bit key and 24-bit IV or a vendor-dependent (hence proprietary) extended version that affords a larger key. The shorter key length can be relatively easy to compromise via brute-force attack, even with modest computing resources; however, a larger key such as the 128-bit keys would be render brute-force attacks impossible, even for sophisticated computing systems. Nevertheless, alternative attacks are possible that do not require a brute-force strategy, thereby diminishing the strength of key length.

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