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How does 802.11ax security benefit from WPA3?

Security methods like WPA3 and Opportunistic Wireless Encryption will give a boost to 802.11ax security, but securing the new wireless standard is still pretty complicated.

The buildup to Wi-Fi 6's ratification in early 2020 is in full swing, with speed and efficiency improvements dominating the narrative. But how does 802.11ax stack up when it comes to security? It's a fair question -- with a fairly complicated answer.

Any wireless network's security depends on how it has been implemented -- hopefully, based on situational requirements. For example, a cafe's Wi-Fi 6 guest network won't have the same security configuration for handling sensitive data as wireless workstations used by corporate employees, even if they both use 802.11ax access points.

This backdrop of heterogeneous security requirements doesn't change that much with the pending Wi-Fi 6 wireless standard.

WPA3, OWE and 802.11ax security

From a security perspective, some new options will gain traction in parallel with the adoption of 802.11ax. The recently introduced Wi-Fi Protected Access 3 (WPA3) Enterprise security standard offers bolstered authentication capabilities and improved encryption. WPA3 Enterprise is currently optional for mainstream enterprise clients, but experts predict it will gain favor quickly in business .11ax environments that use 802.1X-based central authentication.

WPA3's improvements over long-serving WPA2 will likely make it a mandatory part of Wi-Fi 6 eventually, but that evolution needs to play itself out. WPA3 also brings better security and convenience to personal networking and will show up in more devices over time, as with WPA3 Enterprise.

When it comes to 802.11ax and wireless security, things are complicated.

Another interesting security advancement is Opportunistic Wireless Encryption (OWE) for improved security on public networks, like hotels and airports. OWE will provide automatic encryption with no user intervention required, but it won't be terribly extensive. Neither OWE nor WPA3 Personal are requirements of 802.11ax, but they are all expected to mature together and become de facto integrated.

IoT and 802.11ax security

One of .11ax's more vocal promises is improved support for IoT devices, primarily from new power management mechanisms. It can be frustrating to get IoT devices without native UIs configured for a given network and that network's security profile.

The Wi-Fi Alliance is tackling this challenge with its Wi-Fi Easy Connect program. Easy Connect supports both WPA2 and the new WPA3 security levels. If the forecasted rising tide of 802.11ax IoT devices does materialize, Easy Connect will be pivotal to their network onboarding.

As I said previously, when it comes to 802.11ax and wireless security, things are complicated.

This was last published in September 2019

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