A Convenient Way to Secure Your Wireless Network

By Joseph Moran | Posted January 20, 2006

When you think about it, security and convenience almost always reside at opposite ends of a continuum. More security often means less convenience and vice-versa. This usually holds true for everything from airport screenings to protecting a wireless network.

McAfee isn't offering a solution for long lines at the airport metal detector (at least, not that they've told us), but with its new Wireless Home Network Security software (WHNS), the company is attempting to simultaneously improve the security and convenience of home WLANs. The $49.99 utility automatically configures security parameters on the client and the router/AP at the same time. It is aimed at people who — for the sake of expediency — operate unencrypted WLANs or use static and/or easily discernible keys that can facilitate unauthorized access to the network.

In one sense, WHNS is a souped-up version of Windows built-in WLAN utility that lets you secure and connect to your network without requiring you to create or remember a long and cumbersome encryption key, and then regularly changes the key as an added measure of protection.

Hardware Compatibility
Unfortunately, there's no standardized interface or format for configuring wireless hardware, and since router and access point configuration parameters aren't uniform, McAfee Wireless Home Network Security isn't universally compatible with every piece of wireless hardware.

McAfee publishes a list of compatible routers and access points (you don't need to worry about the client) that at the time of this writing listed more than a dozen models from five different vendors. WHNS is compatible with the most common models from the biggest players like D-Link, Linksys and Netgear, but if your hardware is particularly new or special (i.e. a MIMO device) chances are it won't work with WHNS— at least not for the moment.

Another compatibility caveat is that often a particular make and model of hardware will have myriad hardware versions and firmware revisions, so you need to check McAfee's list carefully to ensure that the hardware you have (or plan to buy) is truly supported. While firmware is easy enough to update, hardware versions can't be changed.

For this review, we used the common Linksys WRT54G 802.11g broadband wireless router.

Setup
After setting up the Linksys router using the out-of-the-box configuration (default settings with encryption turned off) and connecting to it with a wireless client, we installed WHNS on a Windows-based laptop PC. The utility promptly detected that the system was connected to an unprotected network and then popped up a dialog asking to secure it. Upon clicking "Yes" and waiting a bit less than a minute, the utility proudly reported that both the computer and the router had been secured, even though there was no request to choose an encryption method or key.

So what exactly happened? Direct inspection of the router revealed that it had in fact been reconfigured with 128-bit WEP encryption, and although the client system continued to report the same network SSID that it had before using WHNS, the router itself showed that it had actually been changed with some characters appended to it. (The SSID modification is how the WHNS software subsequently identifies a network that it has previously configured.)

WLAN Security
Although WHNS automatically configures your network with lesser WEP encryption by default (presumably for compatibility reasons), you can later opt for the more robust WPA-PSK instead.

Regardless of the type of wireless encryption you use, the fact that WHNS chooses the key keeps you from using simplistic keys that can ultimately undermine your security.

For example, although WEP uses long fixed-length keys, how often have you used consecutive numbers or phone numbers or other easily remembered digits? Similarly, WPA shared keys can be as few as eight characters, which makes it tempting to take shortcuts like using the name of a pet or another easily identifiable proper name. Because longer keys are harder to crack, WHNS configures itself and the router using the full 64 characters available.

Perhaps the main feature of WHNS is that it automatically rotates WEP or WPA keys every three hours in an attempt to thwart WLAN sniffers trying to discern your key. This also lets you easily give a guest temporary access to your network

WHNS provides a rudimentary method of user authentication, though it's not exactly automatic. Once a wireless network has been set up and configured by the utility, anyone running WHNS who attempts to automatically connect to it must be granted access by someone else that's already connected to the network and running the software (via a pop-up dialog box).

McAfee licenses the software for five computers, and although a system running WHNS has the benefit of connecting to a protected network without having to know or type an encryption key, having the software is not a prerequisite for access. You can still connect a system to the WLAN conventionally by looking up the encryption method and key — either via the WHNS software or by accessing the router itself — and entering them into Windows. In fact, if there isn't anyone running WHNS already connected to the network, the conventional method is the only option since there won't be any way to respond to the request for access.

The WHNS key rotation feature can also be used as a simple method of access control. A revoke access feature can be invoked on demand to force a key change, leaving all disconnected clients with an invalid key and forcing them to re-authenticate via the above process. The feature does have limitations; you can't revoke the access of a specific system, and any client that's connected when the key change occurs will automatically receive the new key and retain access.

Another potential snag with key rotation concerns non-PC wireless devices like a PDA, game console or TiVo. Any device that can't run WHNS won't "get the memo" when a periodic key change occurs, and though you can suspend key rotation to keep such devices from being left out in the cold, this of course eliminates the protection provided by the feature.

Other Features
Although the option is not front and center (it probably should be), you can use WHNS to change your router's configuration password. The software can also generate alerts based on a number of network events, such as when previously approved systems connect or disconnect or when a key change takes place.

When you use WHNS on a laptop to connect to a network with incompatible hardware (for example, if you have it installed on a notebook that you use on WLANs other than your own) the utility should serve the same function as the built-in Windows WLAN tool. In out tests, while the wireless connection was always rock-solid while using WHNS-compatible routers or access points, there were problems with at least one other network — the system would repeatedly drop the connection forcing us to reconnect manually.

Conclusion
If you have a supported wireless device and run the software on all of your systems, McAfee Wireless Home Network Security lets you have your cake and eat it too by automatically handling all the aspects of WLAN encryption that most people tend to ignore or give short shrift. In this way it gives you excellent wireless security without much of the pain of managing it.

But if you have any non-PC devices on your WLAN that require ongoing access or that you use regularly, having to suspend the key rotation largely negates the promise of the software.  

Price: $49.99

Pros: Automatically configures encryption method and key on router and clients; rotates keys regularly for optimum security

Cons: Requires specific compatible hardware; key rotation makes using non-PC devices inconvenient

Joe Moran spent six years as an editor and analyst with Ziff-Davis Publishing and several more as a freelance product reviewer. He's also worked in technology public relations and as a corporate IT manager, and he's currently principal of Neighborhood Techs, a technology service firm in Naples, FL. He holds several industry certifications, including Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) and Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA).

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