What Is a Wireless Key?

Wireless security starts with your router

Cyber security padlock on white background
Getty Images/Peter Dazeley

Securing your home wireless network is an essential step to prevent hackers. In most homes, the router stands between the users in the home and people who would intercept their data for nefarious purposes. However, just plugging in a router isn't sufficient to secure your wireless network. You need a wireless key for the router and for all the devices in your home that use the router. A wireless key is a type of password commonly used on Wi-Fi wireless computer networks to increase their security.

WEP, WPA and WPA2 Keys

Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) is the primary security standard used on Wi-Fi networks. The original WPA standard was introduced in 1999, replacing an older standard called Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP). A newer version of WPA called WPA2 appeared in 2004.

All of these standards include support for encryption, which is the ability to scramble data being sent over a wireless connection so that it cannot easily be understood by outsiders. Wireless network encryption uses mathematical techniques based on computer-generated random numbers. WEP uses an encryption scheme called RC4, which the original WPA replaced with Temporal Key Integrity Protocol (TKIP). Both RC4 and TKIP as used by Wi-Fi were eventually compromised as security researchers discovered flaws in their implementation that can be easily exploited by attackers. WPA2 introduced Advanced Encryption Standard (AES)  as a replacement for TKIP.

RC4, TKIP, and AES all utilize wireless keys of varying lengths. These wireless keys are hexadecimal numbers that vary in length—typically between 128 and 256 bits long—depending on the encryption method used. Each hexadecimal digit represents four bits of the key. For example, a 128-bit key can be written as a hex number of 32 digits.

Passphrases vs. Keys

passphrase is a password associated with a Wi-Fi key. Passphrases can be a minimum of eight and up to a maximum of 63 characters in length. Each character can be an uppercase letter, lowercase letter, number, or symbol. The Wi-Fi device automatically converts passphrases of varying lengths into a hexadecimal key of the required length.

Using Wireless Keys

To use a wireless key on a home network, an administrator must first enable a security method on the broadband router. Home routers offer a choice among multiple options usually including

  • WEP
  • WPA
  • WPA2-AES

Among these, WPA2-AES should be used whenever possible. All devices connecting to the router must be set to use the same option as the router, but only old Wi-Fi equipment lacks AES support. Choosing an option also prompts the user to enter either a passphrase or a key. Some routers allow entering multiple keys instead of just one to give administrators more control over adding and removing devices from their networks.

Each wireless device connecting to a home network must be set with the same passphrase or key set on the router. The key should not be shared with strangers.