Paying Heed to 802.11n Security

By Andrew Garcia  |  Posted 2008-03-18 Print this article Print

Customers are clamoring for the improved throughput and coverage area, but they also need to keep security in mind.

When Motorola March 12 publicly announced its 802.11n initiative and rolled out equipment for enterprise customers, this meant all of the biggest names in the wireless LAN space in terms of market share were now offering the products based on the draft standard.

This blanket availability shows that these companies have paid heed to their customers' hunger for 802.11n's improvements in throughput, coverage area and client density performance.

However, these hungry customers should also save a little room for security. The 802.11n threat and protection landscapes have not yet evolved at the pace set by the access market, and there are current problems to be solved as well as the potential for greater issues down the road to which customers should pay attention.

Everyone with whom I have spoken agrees there are no known vulnerabilities or attacks specific to 802.11n now, and one school of thought is there won't be the kind of vulnerabilities we've seen in the past. For example, there were no new 802.11a vulnerabilities when that specification first came to market.

However, Amit Sinha, CTO for wireless intrusion prevention vendor AirDefense, said 802.11n adds enough layer of complexity to the wireless MAC and PHY so that there may be opportunities for attack down the road.

Sinha said, "802.11n does significantly complicate the MAC layer with the inclusion of mechanisms such as block acknowledgements and spoofed duration fields that could be exploit candidates. 802.11a did not change the MAC or the basic OFDM modulation used in the physical layer. The physical layer of 802.11n is also dramatically different. The inclusion of 40MHz modes and complex legacy protection mechanisms will lend itself to slightly modified denial-of-service attacks that at the very least could cripple the sought-after benefits of 802.11n."

Andrew cut his teeth as a systems administrator at the University of California, learning the ins and outs of server migration, Windows desktop management, Unix and Novell administration. After a tour of duty as a team leader for PC Magazine's Labs, Andrew turned to system integration - providing network, server, and desktop consulting services for small businesses throughout the Bay Area. With eWEEK Labs since 2003, Andrew concentrates on wireless networking technologies while moonlighting with Microsoft Windows, mobile devices and management, and unified communications. He produces product reviews, technology analysis and opinion pieces for, eWEEK magazine, and the Labs' Release Notes blog. Follow Andrew on Twitter at andrewrgarcia, or reach him by email at

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