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What is a Network Security Key?

Josh Moore
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If you're setting up or troubleshooting your Wi-Fi connection, you might suddenly be asked for a network security key. Don’t worry, it's not as technical as it sounds — your network security key is basically a Wi-Fi or wireless network password.

A network security key is the password or code needed to access a local area network. Without the key, you can’t connect to a wireless network. As the name suggests, it is the tool that lets authorized users in and locks out unauthorized users.

When using WiFi, you will connect using the security key of that network. This may include entering a specific password to access the key, which the users’ devices can remember each time they try to log in to that network.

Benefits of Network Security Keys

There have been several standards for network security keys, with each new generation offering even greater levels of security. One of these will almost certainly be used to protect your home router:

  • WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy)
  • WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access)
  • WPA2 (Wi-Fi Protected Access 2)

The first standard was called WEP or Wired Equivalent Privacy, which offered the same expectations of confidentiality that users today now expect from wired networks. While common, WEP keys have some vulnerabilities in their encryption and security protocols. With WEP keys, the same encrypted message is provided in every connection, meaning that everyone with access to the same key on a given network has access to each other’s information. If your network is on WEP, it is time to upgrade your gear.

Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) keys are an upgrade over WEP due to their ability to accept human passwords and conceal a user’s information from others on the same network, as well as authentication codes that make information sent across networks more secure. Just as WPA keys are an upgrade over WEP keys, WPA2 keys provide network users even more security. WPA3 keys go even further in their authentication protocols, but many WiFi devices might not yet detect WPA3 and support only WPA2. 

However, just because WPA, WPA2, and WPA3 keys are all improvements over their predecessors, they don’t fully ensure security on a given network. Hackers can still compromise or access keys with enough effort and ingenuity. Even users connected to more secure networks can find themselves exchanging information with others on less secure ones, which can compromise their own security and data. Users should always practice caution when sharing sensitive information on any connected network.

Next Level Network Security Keys

Biometric and Two-Factor keys are like WPA and WEP keys in that they work to provide security to users accessing a given network but are different in that they require some sort of external or two-factor authentication. Other biometric security features include fingerprint scanning and facial recognition.

By providing some sort of physical or human identifier, they help to ensure that networks remain secure. Even with these enhanced features, security can be compromised. A person who accesses a network using two-factor authentication may still fall for a phishing scam, giving out private and confidential information to someone posing as a legitimate company or organization.

Create a Strong Key

Network security keys are an important part of keeping your network protected — and in a world where we do most of our business online, that protection is more important than ever. Making sure you select the highest security network you can is part of that, but another part is selecting a good password. Experts say that a strong password has as many of the following qualities as possible:

  • Is 12 characters or longer (the longer the better)
  • Uses a mix of numbers, letters, and symbols
  • Doesn't use common substitutions (like zero for "O," $ for "S," et cetera)
  • Doesn't use an easy keyboard path (like "asdfjkl," "qwerty," or 123456)

Network security keys are the first line of defense for your networks. Understanding how they work, and the importance of having a strong passcode, can help users and their organizations keep their valuable data safe. To learn more about cybersecurity for your business, download our guide to cybersecurity, or reach out for a cybersecurity assessment.

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