This week security researchers announced a newly discovered vulnerability dubbed KRACK, which affects several common security protocols for Wi-Fi, including WPA (Wireless Protected Access) and WPA2. This is a bad vulnerability in that it likely affects billions of devices, many of which are hard to patch and will remain vulnerable for a long time. Yet in light of the sometimes overblown media coverage, it’s important to keep the impact of KRACK in perspective: KRACK does not affect HTTPS traffic, and KRACK’s discovery does not mean all Wi-Fi networks are under attack. For most people, the sanest thing to do is simply continue using wireless Internet access.

The limited privacy goals of WPA

It’s worth taking a step back and remembering why a cryptographic protocol like WPA was developed to begin with. Before the advent of Wi-Fi, computers typically connected to their local Internet access point (e.g. a modem) using a physical wire. Traditional protocols like Ethernet for carrying data on this wire (called the physical layer) were not encrypted, meaning an attacker could physically attach an eavesdropping device to the wire (or just another computer using the same wire) to intercept communications. Most people weren’t too worried about this problem; physically attaching a device is somewhat difficult, and important traffic should be encrypted anyways at a higher layer (most commonly a protocol like TLS at the transport layer). So Ethernet was unencrypted, and remains so today.

With wireless protocols it became much easier to eavesdrop on the physical layer. Instead of attaching a device to a specific wire, you just need an antenna somewhere within range. So while an unencrypted wireless network is theoretically no less secure than an unencrypted wired network, in practice it’s much easier to set up an eavesdropping device. For some it became a hobby to drive or bike around with an antenna looking for wireless networks to eavesdrop on (called wardriving). In response, the IEEE (a computer and electronics engineers’ professional organization) standardized an encryption protocol called WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy). The name is telling here: the goal was just to get back to the relative privacy of a wired connection, by using encryption so that an eavesdropping device couldn’t read any of the traffic. WEP was badly broken cryptographically and has been supplanted by WPA and WPA2, but they have the same basic privacy goal.

Note that WPA’s privacy goals were always very limited. It was never intended to provide complete confidentiality of your data all the way to its final destination. Instead, protocols like TLS (and HTTPS) exist which protect your data end-to-end. In fact, WPA provides no protection against a number of adversaries:

  • At any point between the access point and the server you’re communicating with, an eavesdropper can read your data whether the first hop was WPA, Ethernet, anything else. This means your Internet provider or any Internet router on the network path between you and the destination server can intercept your traffic.
  • Your access point operator (e.g. the owner of your local coffee shop) can read your traffic.
  • Anybody who compromises your access point can read your traffic, and there is a long history of exploits against wireless routers.
  • Anybody who knows the access point’s password can perform a machine-in-the-middle attack and read your traffic. This includes anybody who cracks that password.

A secondary goal: access control

In addition to providing privacy against local eavesdroppers, WPA is commonly used to provide access control to the network by requiring the use of a “pre-shared key” to create sessions. This is the Wi-Fi access password or token which is familiar to most users when trying to connect to a new network. The goal here is simple: the owner of the wireless access point may want to prevent access by unauthorized devices, require new devices to jump through some hoops like watching an advertisement or agreeing to a terms of use agreement, or otherwise alter traffic for unauthorized guests. For years EFF has supported increased availability of open wireless access points, but certainly access point owners should have the ability to limit access if they want to.

How KRACK changes the picture

KRACK makes it possible for an adversary to completely undermine the privacy properties of WPA and WPA2 in many cases. The attack is somewhat complex in that it requires active broadcasting of packets and tricking a device into resetting its key, but it’s the kind of thing that will likely soon be automated in software. This means that, for now, data on many wireless access points may be vulnerable to interception or modification. Keep in mind two big caveats:

  • The attacker must be local and proactive. Carrying out this attack requires having an active antenna in range of the targeted wireless network and requires broadcasting many packets and intercepting or delaying others. This is all doable, but does not easily scale.
  • Important traffic should already be protected with HTTPS. As discussed above, there are already many potential attackers that WPA provides no security against. At worst, KRACK adds an additional one to the list, but with no more power than you ISP or any router on the Internet backbone already has (and those are much more scalable places to conduct surveillance or other mischief). We already have protocols to defend against these attackers, and thanks to the success of projects like EFF’s Encrypt The Web initiative more than half of all Internet traffic is already protected by HTTPS.

On the access control front, it’s unclear how much KRACK matters. It does not provide a new way to crack the pre-shared key or password of a wireless network. Some variants of KRACK enable recovering enough key material to hijack an existing connection and use it to gain unauthorized access, but this is probably not the easiest way to gain unauthorized access.

How did we get here?

Matt Green provides a great overview of the flawed process that led to KRACK being undiscovered for over a decade. The biggest single problem is that the protocol definitions were not easily available to security researchers, so none bothered to seriously look. This is another clear example of why important protocols like WPA and WPA2 should be open and free to the public: so that security researchers can investigate and catch these sorts of vulnerabilities early in the life of a protocol, before it’s embedded in billions of devices.

What you can do to protect your local network

Fortunately, while the KRACK vulnerability is baked into the WPA specification and deployed on billions of devices, it is relatively easy to patch in a backwards-compatible way. It requires patching both devices that connect to the Internet and access points. If you operate a wireless network, patching your router is a great step. Your Internet devices (your computer, phone or tablet) will also need to be patched. Many patches are already available and many devices will automatically be patched.

With that said, it’s a forgone conclusion that there will still be billions of unpatched devices for years (maybe even decades) to come. That’s because, as we’ve said before:

patching large, legacy systems is hard. For many kinds of systems, the existence of patches for a vulnerability is no guarantee that they will make their way to the affected devices in a timely manner. For example, many Internet of Things devices are unpatchable, a fact that was exploited by the Mirai Botnet. Additionally, the majority of Android devices are no longer supported by Google or the device manufacturers, leaving them open to exploitation by a "toxic hellstew" of known vulnerabilities.

So while we don’t think people should necessarily freak out about KRACK, it does demonstrate once again how important it is for industry to solve the patching problem.