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    What is a Network Security Key for Wi-Fi or Mobile Hotspot?

    By: Mike Burgard
    March 9, 2021

    As the modern business landscape continues to lean more and more digital, a growing number of business owners and C-suite executives pride themselves on having a strong base of knowledge in tech. Those who don’t, after all, often suffer communication challenges with certain vendors and department heads.

    Shortcomings like that can result in underinformed steering decisions. To put it more bluntly, those companies risk falling behind the pack. As part of Marco’s ongoing commitment to helping professionals like you “speak tech”, this article sheds some spotlight on an answer to a common IT question: What is a network security key?

    “Network security key” is really just a fancy way of saying the password that unlocks your Wi-Fi or mobile hotspot. Although technically, the broader term “key” is probably more accurately descriptive—new biometric methods of granting access to these networks (such as fingerprints and facial recognition) are beginning to gain some traction.

    Here are a few answers to some related questions you’re probably wondering about at this point.

    security concept

    Are there different kinds of network security keys?

    You bet. Here are the three most common.

    Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP)

    A WEP key is a 40-bit static encryption code that’s paired with a 24-bit initialization vector (IV), and used to disguise communications between users connected to the network.

    These types of keys appear as a combination of numbers and capital letters A-F. They can be as short as 10 characters, or as long as 58 (!!) in some cases.

    The main drawback of WEP keys is that they’re not very secure. Even a modest cybercriminal can often hack them within minutes, leaving your network vulnerable. Because of that, they’ve entirely lost relevance. If you’re using this type of network key, stop reading this article right now and make a call to your IT partner to update.

    Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA)

    You’ve probably seen a WPA key before; the password printed on the Wi-Fi router in your home is a good example.

    Rather than rely on a static encryption code to secure your data, however, a WPA key is dynamic, meaning it creates an entirely new 128-bit key each time a packet of data is sent across the network. This temporal key integrity protocol (TKIP) makes communications much harder to hack.

    The TKIP also performs message integrity checks, which protect data packets from being intercepted, altered, and redirected by viruses.

    Wi-Fi Protected Access 2 (WPA2)

    While WPA2 keys can also use TKIP, they’re known for their ability to run an Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) algorithm, which is harder to crack than a frozen coconut.

    That comes at a modest cost; this type of key requires a lot more processing power, and thus more powerful hardware.

    Still, if you’re using a wireless network connection in your office (and since it’s the 2020s, I sure hope you are), a WPA2 key is the hands-down best choice to protect your communications and your assets.

    cyber security fingerprint

    Why is my network security key so important?

    Your network security key is important for all the same reasons your privacy is important, and that goes triple for business owners.

    Cybercriminals who gain access to your network can do a maelstrom of terrible things, like steal your employees’ personal information, view your company’s data and analytics, install spyware, or even use your network as a proxy server to launch a cyberattack on another victim.

    If that doesn’t give you the jitters, consider that the FBI has gone so far as to issue a public service announcement urging offices nationwide to take certain steps to protect their networks from foreign cyber actors.

    Breaches of your company security can also cost you greatly in terms of an entirely different kind of capital: consumer confidence. If word gets out that your network security has been compromised, people may be reluctant to give you purchasing information like checking account numbers and credit card information.

    How can I optimize my network security key?

    username and password loginThere are several ways to optimize your network security key, but the most important thing to keep in mind is that no matter how intricate your password is, it won’t do you any good if it stops being secret.

    You should treat your network security key with the same watchful care that you treat any other key in your life. You wouldn’t leave your car keys on your windshield, or your house key taped to your front door. So for the love of all that’s good and pure, don’t write your network security key on a Post It note and stick it to your computer monitor!

    In fact, you should carefully avoid writing it down practically altogether, and when you do, make sure you’re keeping it tucked away and hidden. You never know which contractor or janitor might be opportunistic, or have nefarious motives.

    Even typing a note into your phone's notepad app or storing in an electronic document isn't safe. Passwords stored via these methods are also susceptible to being discovered.

    With that in mind, your password should be something unique. Don’t use things like birthdays, your childrens’ names, or the make and model of the car you’re super proud of. That kind of information is easy for a hacker to find out.

    Instead, consider using a randomized network security key. Or, if you need something that’s easy to remember, make an excruciatingly long acronym, such as ICUARNSKOIFNSTE2RMAELASA—the first letter of each word before it in this paragraph.

    It’s a good idea to change the password every quarter, too.

    Truly, though, when you ask “How can I optimize my network security key?”, what you’re actually asking is “How can I keep my network as secure as possible?” And there’s no better answer to that question than managed IT services.

    Companies that provide managed IT services (like Marco, of course) can help you develop airtight password policies, proactively mitigate the threat of cyber attacks, and recover your data if your servers somehow get wiped.

    A key component of your business

    Your network security key can’t be an afterthought. It may seem trivial at first glance, but the integrity of your virtual padlock might be the only thing guarding you against a ruinous data breach. Keep yourself safe with a strong passphrase, and consider looking into managed IT services.

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    Topics: Network Security