Wi-Fi Connection

An STA first searches for nearby wireless networks through active or passive scanning, then establishes a connection with an AP after authentication and association, and finally accesses the wireless LAN. Figure 7.4 shows the process of Wi-Fi connection.

Figure 7.4. Process of Wi-Fi connection

1. Scanning

An STA can actively or passively scan wireless networks.

Passive scanning

Passive scanning refers to discovering wireless networks nearby through monitoring the beacon frames periodically sent by an AP. It is recommended when users need to save power.

Active scanning

During active scanning, the STA actively sends out probe requests and receives probe responses from the AP. It is further devided into two modes based on the involvement of SSID.

  • Active scanning without SSID

    The STA periodically sends out probe requests through supported channels to search for wireless networks. APs that receive the probe request will return probe responses, which carry the information of available wireless networks. This enables an STA to obtain all the available wireless services nearby.

  • Active scanning with specific SSIDs

    If the STA needs to configure a wireless network to be connected or has accessed a wireless network before, it will periodically send out probe requests with configuration information or the SSID of the accessed wireless network. When an AP with specific SSID receives the request, it will return a probe response. In this way, an STA can actively access a specified wireless network.

For hidden APs, active scanning with specific SSID is recommended.

2. Authentication

When the STA finds an available wireless network, it will select one of the APs with matching SSID according to certain connection strategy, such as selecting the one with strongest signal or with matching MAC address. The next step is authentication. There is open authentication and non-open authentication.

Open authentication

Essentially, open authentication requires no authentication or encryption. Any STA can access the network. The AP does not verify STA's identity in this process, as shown in Figure 7.5.

Figure 7.5. Process of open authentication

The STA sends a request for authentication, and the AP returns the result. If the result reads "Success", then the authentication is completed.

Non-open authentication

Non-open authentication includes shared key authentication, Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA), and Robust Security Network (RSN).

  • Shared key

    Shared key authentication is based on the Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) method. It is a basic encryption technology with security flaws.

    STAs and APs can only interpret the data transmitted between each other when they have the same key configured. There are 64-bit keys and 128-bit keys. Users can set up to four groups of different keys. Figure 7.6 shows the process of shared key authentication.

    Figure 7.6. Process of shared key authentication

    The STA sends an authentication request to the AP. Then the AP generates a challenge text and sends it to the STA. The STA uses its preconfigured keys to encrypt the text and sends it back. The AP uses its preconfigured keys to decrypt the text and compares it with the original text. If the two texts are identical, then the authentication is completed.

  • Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA)

    WPA is an intermediate solution to replace WEP before the official release of IEEE 802.11i. It uses a new Message Integrity Check (MIC) algorithm to replace the CRC algorithm in WEP. It also adopts the Temporal Key Integrity Protocol (TKIP) to generate different keys for different MAC frames. TKIP is a transitional encryption protocol and has proved of low security.

  • Robust Security Network (RSN)

    The WFA calls RSN the WPA2. It adopts a new encryption method, the Counter Mode with CBC-MAC Protocol (CCMP), a block security protocol based on the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES). We will expound on this later along with authorisation.

  • Wi-Fi Protected Access 3 (WPA3)

    Although WPA2 consolidates Wi-Fi networks to a certain extent, new security vulnerabilities keep emerging, such as offline dictionary attacks, brute force attacks, and key reinstallation attacks (KRACK). To this end, the WFA released the WPA3 in 2018, a new generation of Wi-Fi encryption protocol that mitigates the risks in WPA2 and provides new features.

    Compared with WPA2, WPA3 has the following advantages:

    βœ… The use of AES encryption is mandatory instead of TKIP.

    βœ… Management frames are protected.

    βœ… The more secure method, Simultaneous Authentication of Equals (SAE), is used to replace the pre-shared key (PSK) authentication in WPA2.

    πŸ“š Further Reading: What makes SAE stand out?

    • First, SAE denies services for STAs that repeatedly try to connect to the AP, preventing brute-force attacks or password cracking.

    • Second, its forward secrecy function ensures that the key will be changed frequently and automatically, so that even if the most recent key is hacked, only a minimal amount of data will be exposed.

    • Last, SAE considers devices as peers. Either party can initiate a handshake and send authentication information independently, cancelling the message exchange process, thus leaving no opportunity for KRACKs.

    βœ… 192-bit security suite is used to strengthen password protection.

    βœ… HMAC-SHA-384 algorithm is used to export and confirm keys in the four-way handshake phase.

    βœ… Galois-Counter Mode Protocol-256 (GCMP-256) is used to protect wireless traffic after STAs go online.

    βœ… Galois Message Authentication Code-256 (GMAC-256) of GCMP is used to protect multicast management frames.

    βœ… WPA3 introduces a Wi-Fi Enhanced Open authentication mode – the Opportunistic Wireless Encryption (OWE), which allows for connection without password, retaining the facilitation for accessing open networks. It uses the Diffie-Hellman key exchange algorithm to encrypt data on the Wi-Fi network, thereby protecting data exchange between STAs and the Wi-Fi network.

3. Association

After the AP returns successful authentication result to the STA, the next step is association to get full network access, as shown in Figure 7.7.

Figure 7.7. Process of association

4. Authorisation

After scanning, authentication, and association, let's focus on the last step – authorisation. In this section, we'll introduce the Extensible Authentication Protocol (EAP), and the key agreement, the four-way handshake protocol.

Extensible Authentication Protocol (EAP)

EAP is the most basic security protocol for identity verification, which is not only a protocol, but also a protocol framework. Based on this protocol framework, various authentication methods are well supported. Supplicants send identity verification requests to the Authenticator through EAP over LAN (EAPOL), and get allowed to use the network once the verification succeeds. Figure 7.8 shows the architecture of EAP.

This book only touches the basics about EAP. To learn more, please refer to RFC 3748.

Figure 7.8. EAP architecture
  • Supplicant: the entity that initiates an authentication request. For wireless networks, an STA is a Supplicant.

  • Authenticator: the entity that responds to an authentication request. For wireless networks, an AP is an Authenticator.

  • Backend Authentication Server (BAS): In some cases, such as in enterprise applications, Authenticator does not directly handle authorisation. Instead, it sends the authentication request to the BAS. This is how the EAP extends its range of application.

  • Authentication, Authorization, and Accounting (AAA): another EAP-based protocol. The entity implementing this protocol is a certain type of BAS, for example, the RADIUS server.

  • EAP server: This is what actually handles authorisation. If there is no BAS, the Authenticator plays as the EAP server, otherwise the BAS will serve the purpose.

Key agreement

Robust Secure Network Association (RSNA) is a set of procedures defined in IEEE 802.11 to ensure wireless network security. It consists of data encryption and integrity verification. RSNA uses the above mentioned TKIP and CCMP. The Temporary Key (TK) used in TKIP and CCMP comes from the key derivation function defined by RSNA. Based on IEEE 802.1X, RSNA also defines the Four-Way Handshake to generate keys for unicast data encryption, and the Group Key Handshake for multicast data encryption.

But why do we need to derive keys? In the WEP encryption mode, all STAs use the same WEP key for encryption, resulting in low security, while RSNA requires different STAs to use different keys for encryption after associating with APs. Does this mean that the AP needs to set different passwords for different STAs? Obviously, the answer is no. In real life, we use the same password to associate different STAs with the same AP.

Then how can different STAs use different passwords? The password we set in an STA is called Pairwise Master Key (PMK). It comes from the PSK, namely the password set in the wireless router at home. It is set without any authentication server, and the corresponding setting is WPA/WPA2-PSK. Figure 7.9 shows how a PMK is generated from the PSK.

Figure 7.9. Generation of PMK from PSK

In WPA2-PSK, PMK is identical with PSK. But in WPA3, it generates new PMK through the SAE method based on the PMK from WPA2, to ensure that every STA has a unique PMK at different stages. Figure 7.10 shows how PMK is generated through SAE.

Figure 7.10. Generation of PMK with SAE

SAE treats the Supplicant and the Authenticator as peers. Either of them can initiate authentication. The two parties exchange data with each other to prove their knowledge of the key and generate PMK. SAE includes two phases, Commit and Confirm. In the Commit phase, both parties send SAE Commit frames for deducing the PSK. Then in the Confirm phase, they send SAE Confirm frames to verify the PSK. Once verification succeeds, PMK will be generated and the association will proceed.


The sender uses the Hunting and Pecking algorithm to generate a Password Element (PWE) based on PSK and the MAC addresses of the sender and receiver. Then the scalar integer and element coordinates are generated by the sender based on PWE and a random value through elliptic curve operation. Upon receiving the commit frame, the receiver verifies the frame, and uses both the local and received frame content to generate a Key Confirmation Key (KCK) and PMK. The KCK will generate and verify the frame content in the Confirm phase.


Both parties generate a verification code from the KCK, local and peer Scalars, and local and peer PWEs through the same hash algorithm. If the codes turn out to be identical, the verification passes.

After the STA and AP obtain PMK, they will start key derivation. During this process, the AP and different STAs generate different keys, which are configured into hardware for encryption/decryption. Since the AP and STAs need to re-generate these keys every time they are associated, they are named Pairwise Transient Keys (PTK). AP and STA use the EAPOL-Key frame to exchange Nonce and other messages, when the Four-Way Handshake comes into play. The process is shown in Figure 7.11.

Figure 7.11. Process of Four-Way Handshake
  1. The Authenticator generates a Nonce (ANonce), and sends it to the Supplicant in EAPOL-Key (Message 1).

  2. Supplicant performs key derivation based on the ANonce, its own Nonce (SNonce) and PMK, and Authenticator's MAC address . Then it sends the Authenticator another EAPOL-Key message (Message 2) that contains the SNonce. Message 2 also carries an MIC value encrypted by KCK. Once the Authenticator gets the SNonce in Message 2, it performs calculations similar to that of the Supplicant to verify whether the message returned is correct. If it is incorrect, which means the Supplicant's PMK is wrong, the handshake will be terminated.

  3. If the Supplicant's PMK is correct, the Authenticator will also perform key derivation. Later, the Authenticator sends the third EAPOL-Key message (Message 3) to the Supplicant. This message carries the Group Transient Key (GTK, used to update the group key encrypted by KEK) and MIC (encrypted by KCK). When the Supplicant receives Message 3, it will check whether the PMK of the AP is correct by calculation.

  4. The Supplicant sends the last EAPOL-Key message (Message 4) to the Authenticator for confirmation. Then both parties will use it to encrypt data.

So far, the Supplicant and Authenticator have completed key derivation and pairing. They can eventually communicate with each other.