When you connect a Wi-Fi device to a network you usually have to enter a password. It’s rare these days to have an ‘open’ network with no password, unless you’re in an airport or a shopping centre with free Wi-Fi. And everyone knows that an unsecure network isn't a good thing, even if it's free.
For all those networks secured with a password, they tend to a standard called WPA2. This has been around since 2004 and, although it’s by no means bad, the fact that it was hacked earlier this year meant a new version was due.
Fortunately, that new standard was already in the works and WPA3 was sort-of announced at CES in January 2018. It’s only now that the first devices are being certified by the Wi-Fi Alliance, which is behind the new standard.
Why is WPA3 better than WPA2?
In short, it’s more secure. With WPA2, it was possible to use a ‘brute force’ method to discover your Wi-Fi password.
This was because the process of guessing password after password could happen offline. But with WPA3, hackers won’t be able to do that as the new standard allows for only one offline guess before having to connect to the network and make another password attempt online.
This means those brute force attacks are effectively stopped in their tracks. It also means that the old Pre-shared Key system is gone, replaced by Simultaneous Authentication of Equals. So instead of selecting WPA2-PSK in the drop-down list in your router’s Wi-Fi settings, you’ll see WPA3-SAE when the new standard arrives proper.
Another benefit is what’s called forward secrecy. Put simply, if someone managed to hack into your Wi-Fi network under the WPA2 system, they’d have access to everything. With WPA3, should a breach occur (something already unlikely) then the hacker would only be able to access data sent across the network from that point in time onwards, not data sent in the past.
A more visible benefit is the new Easy Connect system. This is aimed at smart home gadgets without screens, and allows a device to connect to a WPA3 Wi-Fi network by scanning a QR code. That could be a security camera which can read the QR code directly, or via the gadget’s app which would use your phone’s camera to do the scanning.
Next, there’s Natural Password Selection. It means you can choose a password that’s easier to remember while still getting the benefit of better security.
Finally, with WPA3 you’ll be able to connect to open networks – such as when you’re at the airport – and still have an encrypted connection even though you don’t enter a password. This is great news, as it means you shouldn’t have to use a VPN to stop people seeing your login details on free public Wi-Fi.
Right now, it’s unclear how you’ll know if you’re connected using WPA3 though.
Will my existing router and devices get WPA3?
In theory, WPA3 could be added to current phones, routers and smart home devices with a software update.
However, the reality is that some manufacturers are unlikely to spend time and effort getting any current products (those already on sale) certified by the Wi-Fi Alliance, which is what needs to happen before they can start issuing firmware updates.
This isn't true of all companies though. Linksys, for example, told us that it is fully behind WPA3, and plans to issue automatic firmware updates if it can add support to 'legacy products'. It also says that being able to support the new functionality "is highly dependent on the Wi-Fi chipset provider, thus support will be on a case-by-case basis".
Being realistic, you can expect mainly the next generation of routers and phones to get WPA3. Look out for the Wi-Fi Certified WPA3 logo on their boxes.
How do I use WPA3?
WPA3 is backwards compatible with WPA2, so if you have a router which supports WPA3, you’ll be able to connect to it with a phone or other Wi-Fi device that only supports WPA2.
However, you won’t get the extra security benefits that WPA3 offers.
So, ultimately, both the router and connecting device(s) must support WPA3 before you gain any advantage over your current setup.
When will WPA3 devices go on sale?
The Wi-Fi Alliance says “later in 2018”, so it’s going to be a long while before the standard is ubiquitous. Don’t expect public Wi-Fi to be upgraded immediately, either.
When you get your first WPA3-compliant router, many gadgets will still connect using WPA2, including your laptop, smart plugs and thermostats, security cameras, Amazon Echos and phones.
Eventually, we’ll reach a point where existing devices are retired and replaced with WPA3-compatible models, but that’s unlikely to be for a good few years yet.