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 wireless encryption protocols intended to protect the information you send and receive over a wireless network. Choosing which protocol to use for your network can be a bit confusing if you're not familiar with the differences.

Below is a look at the history of wireless encryption and a comparison of these protocols so that you can decide which you should use for your home or business.

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

What They Mean and Which to Use

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

WEP had serious security weaknesses and has been superseded by WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access).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 might provide a false sense of security to those securing their networks with WEP.

Hacker in a hooded sweatshort sitting in front of a computer

Blend Images - John Lund / Brand X Pictures / Getty Images

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 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 uses the WPA2 protocol, particularly when transmitting confidential personal or business information.

Using WEP, WPA, or 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 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 isn't secure. Or, the router might be completely open with no encryption or password.

When setting up your network, use WPA2 or, at the minimum, WPA.

Using WEP, WPA, or WPA2 on the Client Side

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

That password is the WEP, WPA, or WPA2 code the router administrator entered into the router when they set up the network security. 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 gain access using whatever protocol has been determined.

For this reason, note the network's security setting after connecting to understand what's safe and not safe to transmit over that network.

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