WPA is not encrypting your customer traffic

There was a Facebook discussion that popped up tonight about how a WISP answers the question “Is your network secure?” There were many good answers and the notion of WEP vs WPA was brought up.

In today’s society, you need end-to-end encryption for data to be secure. An ISP has no control over where the customer traffic is going. Thus, by default, the ISP has no control over customer traffic being secure.  “But Justin, I run WPA on all my aps and backhauls, so my network is secure.”  Again, think about end-to-end connectivity. Every one of your access points can be encrypted, and every one of your backhauls can be encrypted, but what happens when an attacker breaks into your wiring closet and installs a sniffer on a router or switch port?What most people forget is that WPA key encryption is only going on between the router/ap and the user device.  “But I lock down all my ports.” you say.  Okay, what about your upstream? Who is to say your upstream provider doesn’t have a port mirror running that dumps all your customer traffic somewhere.  “Okay, I will just run encrypted tunnels across my entire network!. Ha! let’s see you tear down that argument!”. Again, what happens when it leaves your network?  The encryption stops at the endpoint, which is the edge of your network.

Another thing everyone hears about is hotspots. Every so often the news runs a fear piece on unsecured hotspots.  This is the same concept.  If you connect to an unsecured hotspot, it is not much different than connecting to a hotspot where the WPA2 key is on a sign behind the cashier at the local coffee shop. The only difference is the “hacker” has an easier time grabbing any unsecured traffic you are sending. Notice I said unsecured.  If you are using SSL to connect to a bank site that session is sent over an encrypted session.  No sniffing going on there.  If you have an encrypted VPN the possibility of traffic being sniffed is next to none. I say next to none because certain types of VPNs are more secure than others. Does that mean the ISP providing the Internet to feed that hotspot is insecure? There is no feasible way for the ISP to provide end to end security of user traffic on the open Internet.

These arguments are why things like SSL and VPNs exist. Google Chrome is now expecting all websites to be SSL enabled to be marked as secure. VPNs can ensure end-to-end security, but only between two points.  Eventually, you will have to leave the safety and venture out into the wild west of the internet.  Things like Intranets exist so users can have access to information but still be protected. Even most of that is over encrypted SSL these days so someone can’t install a sniffer in the basement.

So what is a WISP supposed to say about security? The WISP is no more secure than any other ISP, nor are then any less secure.  The real security comes from the customer. Things like making sure their devices are up-to-date on security patches.  This includes the often forgotten router. Things like secure passwords, paying attention to browser warnings, e-mail awareness, and other things are where the real user security lies. VPN connections to work. Using SSL ports on e-mail. Using SSH and Secure RDP for network admins. Firewalls can help, but they don’t encrypt the traffic. Does all traffic need encrypted? no.