What Are WEP, WPA, and WPA2? Which Is Best?

WEP vs WPA vs WPA2: Why The Differences Matter

The acronyms WEP, WPA, and WPA2 refer to different wireless encryption protocols that are intended to protect the information you send and receive over a wireless network. Choosing which protocol to use for your own network can be a bit confusing if you're not familiar with their differences.

Below is a look at the history of wireless encryption and a comparison of these protocols so that you can come to a solid conclusion about which you might want to use for your own home or business.

In short, WPA2 is what you want to use, if possible. Not all devices support it, but if yours does, it's important to adopt so that the most up-to-date security possible is available for all the devices that are currently connected and will eventually connect to your Wi-Fi network.

What They Mean and Which to Use

These wireless encryption protocols were created by the Wi-Fi Alliance, an association of hundreds of companies in the wireless network industry. The first protocol the group created was WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy), introduced in the late 1990s.

WEP, however, had serious security weaknesses and has been superseded by WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access). Despite being easily hacked, however, WEP connections are still in use and may be providing a false sense of security to the many people who are securing their networks with WEP.

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The reason WEP is still used is likely either because the network administrator hasn't changed the default security on their wireless routers or because the device is too old and therefore doesn't support newer encryption methods like WPA.

Just as WPA replaced WEP, WPA2 has replaced WPA as the most current security protocol. WPA2 implements the latest security standards, including government-grade data encryption. Since 2006, all Wi-Fi certified products must use WPA2 security.

If you're looking for a new wireless card or device, make sure it's labeled as Wi-Fi CERTIFIED™ so that you know it complies with the latest security standard. For existing connections, make sure your wireless network is using the WPA2 protocol, particularly when transmitting confidential personal or business information.

Using WEP/WPA/WPA2 on a Router

During the initial setup, most modern wireless access points and routers let you select the security protocol to use. While this is, of course, a good thing, some people don't care to change it.

The problem with not changing the default security protocol used by the router is that it might be using WEP, which we now know isn't secure. Or, even worse, the router might be completely open with no encryption or password at all.

If you're setting up your own network, make sure to use WPA2 or, at the bare minimum, WPA.

Using WEP/WPA/WPA2 on the Client Side

When you try to establish a connection to a security-enabled wireless network for the first time — be it from your laptop, desktop, smartphone, etc. — you'll be prompted to enter the correct security key or passphrase to gain access to the network.

That password is the WEP/WPA/WPA2 code that the router administrator entered into the router when the network security was set up. If you're connecting to a business network, it's most likely provided by the network administrator.

Unlike from the admin's perspective where the router is set up to use a specific security protocol, you, as the user, can't change anything about the security method from the client side. When you enter the password for the Wi-Fi network, you're gaining access using whatever protocol has already been determined.

It's for this reason that you should take note of the network's security setting after connecting, to understand what's safe and not safe to transmit over that particular network.