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How do I know if I have WPA or WEP I can use when traveling?

I’ve read all of your various articles on wireless security, WEP,
WPA, etc., but can find no definitive guidance on exactly how to
determine if my wireless network card in my Dell Inspiron Laptop
supports any secure connection methods. I’m certain it does, but how
can I tell? Also, some of the Microsoft articles I’ve read today and
earlier about setting up a WPA-secure machine are not entirely
intuitive (or understandable, for that matter).

Without WPA engaged, I shall simply continue avoiding hotels with
wireless-only service and rely on MS Firewall and Zone Alarm when
dealing with hotel wired access. But, if I could learn to trust WiFi,
my traveling Internet vistas would be expanded greatly.

The question is very simple: how do I know if my computer supports
WEP or WPA?

The problem is that the follow-on paragraph shows some common
misconceptions about using WEP or WPA when traveling.

I’ll put it this way: your hardware support is the least of your
issues.

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To actually answer your question, I don’t have a quick way to
determine across all possible wireless adapters whether they support
WPA or WEP or not. My advice is to simply check the documentation for
your machine or for the wireless adapter – it’s almost always called
out as a feature.

It’s probably safe to say that all adapters still in use that you’re
likely to come across will support WEP, and most all modern adapters
will support WPA as well.

I also need to make note of something important relating to WEP
versus WPA. Both are encryption standards that are intended to keep
your data private as it travels wirelessly between your computer and
the wireless router or access point. The problem is that WEP is
basically useless. It turns out that it’s very easy to crack, and it’s
almost as bad as connecting with no encryption at all.

So I’m not going to talk about WEP. Use it only as a last resort,
and even then, act as if you weren’t using it at all.

“Whether or not WPA encryption is used is a
choice made at the wireless router or access point …”

Now, about that misconception.

The implication from the second paragraph is that if you knew your
hardware supported WPA you would feel safer using wireless in public
areas.

The problem is that it’s not your choice. Whether or not WPA
encryption is used is a choice made at the wireless router or access
point – i.e. the “other end” of your wireless connection. You simply
configure your wireless receiver to match. If the wireless access point
is not using encryption, then you can’t force it to.

And most public wireless “hotspots”, as in hotels, coffee shops or
libraries, do not use encryption. That’s the reason they’re called
“open” hotspots – anyone can come by and use it.

You’ll know it’s open because you won’t need to provide a password,
and that’s exactly the way these locations want it. They could provide
a secure connection, but then they’d have to post or make available the
password required to access the wireless network. I assume they don’t
because of the additional support burden: people mistype passwords all
the time and your local barista probably won’t be able to help you with
password or related connectivity problems. They want it to be extremely
easy to use, and that means open – in every sense of the word.

Open as in unencrypted.

Now, if, when you attempt to connect to a wireless network, you’re
asked to provide the network password or key, then you’re using some
form of encryption. That’s how you’ll tell. After having connected with
the correct password, you’ll be able to examine the properties of the
connection to see whether that was WEP or WPA.

It’s likely that having WPA support on your laptop will not help you
one whit when it comes to increasing your security in public places.
That’s not to say you should avoid them; you’ll just need to make sure
to take additional steps to stay safe wirelessly
when connecting on an open network.

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4 comments on “How do I know if I have WPA or WEP I can use when traveling?”

  1. one question – if the hot-spot turns on the encryption but openly announce the password would it still protect my computer from snooping by others connected to the same hot-spot?

    Interestingly enough, the answer appears to be no – anyone sharing that hotspot by virtue of having the encryption password would be able to sniff your traffic.

    I have heard that there are potential improvements in the works, but that’s a ways off.

    -Leo

    Reply
  2. This is probably the richest source of information on security ‘between your machine and a wireless access point. It is also the simplest. But I am still stuck as I think some sniffing/snooping activity present on my access. Is there a way to find out if the router which I am accessing is enabled for wpa2? Or in other words is the connection I am using being routed wirelessly by the router have wpa2 or wpa or plain wep? how does one find that out? Would one need admin access to the router console for finding it?

    Reply
  3. Interestingly, I have similar problem; new modem from ISP running wpa, computer worked great in wep and still does via ethernet. But can’t get wpa/wireless to connect on older laptop. All other devices synced.

    Reply

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