The State of Guest Wi-Fi Security


Most guest Wi-Fi networks today are open SSID’s with no encryption that have a captive portal that requires users to click through some terms and conditions. It would be nice to be able to secure these networks the same way we do with internal SSID’s–mutual authentication of the client and network, and strong layer 2 encryption, but that challenge has proven too difficult to accomplish without a high degree of friction. You could make users suffer through a lengthy and confusing onboarding process, but imagine doing that at every location where there is guest Wi-Fi? Not good. I agree with Keith Parsons’ take: Guest Wi-Fi should be fast, free, and easy. Security should be too.

How can we make this better? The Wi-Fi Alliance is certifying devices for a new security protocol called Opportunistic Wireless Encryption (OWE). Their certification is called Wi-Fi Enhanced Open, but I’ll refer to it as OWE for the purposes of this blog. OWE adds encryption to open WLAN’s with no client authentication, but it does not provide for server authentication, which leaves users vulnerable to man-in-the-middle (MitM) attacks. The authors of the RFC understood this, and wrote that “the presentation of the available SSID to users should not include special security symbols such as a ‘lock icon.'” Aruba Networks has already announced support for OWE, and I hope other vendors follow suit.

Unfortunately The Wi-Fi Alliance did not choose to make OWE support mandatory in WPA3. It’s a separate and optional certification. Perhaps they will right this wrong by requiring OWE support in Wi-Fi 6 certification, which could require WPA3 support just as 802.11n required WPA2 support. Why not tack on OWE to Wi-Fi 6 as well?

Secure Guest Wi-Fi with Hot Spot 2.0/Passpoint

I once believed that Hot Spot 2.0/Passpoint (HS2.0) was the future of secure guest Wi-Fi, because it allowed for anonymous authentication to a WPA2-Enterprise network. The problem is that users are still required to go through a high-friction onboarding process on every anonymous HS2.0 WLAN they wish to use. That means dealing with captive portals, terms and conditions, installing configuration profiles, etc.

HS2.0 does allow for automatic authentication with user creds from other identity providers. That would allow a user to login with pre-installed creds from their cellular carrier, Facebook, Amazon, Google, Apple, etc.

Telcos are the best choice here as their creds are already installed on mobile phones to authenticate with their cellular networks. However, telcos are unlikely to open their authentication service to WLAN operators for several reasons.

  • They want to be paid for providing this service, but SMB and many large enterprises don’t want to pay to increase the security of their guest networks.
  • It gives an implied endorsement of the security, quality, and reliability of the WLAN, which the telco knows nothing about.

That’s why you see telcos integrating with Boingo, for example, but not smaller players.

But what if there was a HS2.0 open roaming consortium that federated authentication from any identity provider that wanted to join? Something like eduroam for anyone.

The biggest problem is that WLAN authentication in such a scenario tells you nothing about the identity or security of… the WLAN. Users authenticate with their identity provider’s RADIUS servers, and the result is strong encryption in the air, but no guarantee of security on the wired network. They don’t get any information about the identity of the wired LAN that their bits are traversing, because the authentication is abstracted away from the network they are using. HS2.0 provides no identity verification of the network that users are actually using.

This is a smaller problem in eduroam, where most WLAN’s are run by higher education institutions and they agree to operate their networks a certain way. There is some homogeneity there, and users can expect similar security and terms of use between member networks.

An open roaming consortium would allow users to authenticate to a university’s WLAN and a dingy laundromat’s WLAN as if there was no difference. In fact, roaming between those networks would happen automatically without any user interaction. That’s an acceptable risk when all the networks in the consortium are similar (eduroam), but it isn’t when nothing can be assumed about the quality and security of member networks in an open roaming consortium.

Is it reasonable to assume an end-user wants to connect to any WLAN that supports their HS2.0 creds? My answer to that is a definite “no.” One benefit of the non-HS2.0 model is that a user must express an intent to connect to a new WLAN, which gives them the ability to decide if it is trustworthy or not. HS2.0 circumvents this process, and if it becomes more open and widespread, users may end up connecting to networks they don’t trust.

Secure Guest Wi-Fi with an On-Premises Solution

There are several on-premises BYOD or SGW onboarding solutions. They don’t solve the high-friction onboarding problem mentioned previously–they compound it, because the credentials they issue cannot be used between networks. Users must wrestle with a high-friction onboarding process with every SGW network they want to use.

The fundamental problem with Hot Spot 2.0 and On-Premises solutions is that they require client credentials. Authenticating users is not a requirement for SGW in my opinion, and I imagine that’s a common view. It creates unnecessary complexity for users and administrative overhead to WLAN operators. We need a solution for anonymous SGW.

An HTTPS-like Solution

For secure guest Wi-Fi, a security model similar to HTTPS would be great. Client identity is not important, but the WLAN identity should be verified, not just the RADIUS server. Strong encryption must be used, wireless network access must be resistant to MitM attacks, and users should only connect to a SGW network when they have expressed the intent to do so.

Additionally, all of the necessary configuration and complexity to accomplish this should be handled by the WLAN operator. For the end-user, it should “just work.”

Take the example of HTTPS: A web admin requests and is issued a DNS-validated TLS certificate signed by a public certificate authority. She then installs the cert on her web server, configures it for strong encryption, and adds an HTTP to HTTPS 301 redirect. Now visitors to the website are able to verify the website’s identity and connect to it with strong encryption, and they had to do nothing to get those security benefits except run a modern web browser. SGW should be just as easy for end users.

OWE gets us halfway there, but crucially, does not address the threat of MitM attacks. We need a WLAN-centric public key infrastructure (PKI) for that, and that’s the rub. Suddenly there’s a lot of administrative overhead to make this work. Perhaps it would look something like this:

An “Open RADIUS Certificate Authority,” or ORCA, would only issue certs to validated network operators, and those certs could only be used with specific SSID’s.

ORCA’s root cert would have to be be preinstalled and trusted by client devices for EAP authentication.

Wi-Fi clients would connect to an ORCA-enrolled SGW SSID and authenticate anonymously, then validate the ORCA-signed cert presented by the RADIUS server. The client verified that the cert has not been revoked and that it is connecting to an SSID that the cert has been permitted for use. The session is encrypted and the WLAN’s identity is verified. Clients only connect to ORCA-enrolled WLAN’s when they intend to, by clicking/tapping on the SSID in their Wi-Fi menu/settings.

All the end user has to do is tap/click on the SGW SSID to connect to it. Everything else is handled by the client device, the WLAN, and ORCA.

Ta da, we now have low-friction SGW, but for all this work, what have we really gained, today, in 2018?

If you run a packet capture on an open guest network today, you’ll see DNS queries and a whole lot of TLS sessions, not much else. Yes, SGW would add another layer of security on top of this, but at what cost? Making ORCA work is no small task, if it is even achievable in the first place.


OWE gives us layer 2 encryption, so that passive sniffing doesn’t reveal those DNS queries anymore. While OWE doesn’t address MitM rogue AP attacks, coupling it with 802.11w protected management frames, which is required for Wi-Fi Enhanced Open certification, adds resistance to malicious deauth attacks.

The work necessary to make my SGW scheme function doesn’t balance with the small gain in security. It’s better to take a perimeterless networking approach (e.g. BeyondCorp), only deploy hardened applications, and assume the networks your users use will not be trustworthy. If you do not use applications that expose their data to network-level interception or abuse, then have at it. How can an end-user ever truly know if a network is trustworthy anyway?

We can add a bit more security through OWE to help obscure the small amount of guest network traffic that remains unencrypted, and 802.11w protected management frames to prevent some rogue AP attacks. That’s going to have to be good enough.