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Why I've given up on PEAP

Wireless security always seems one of those things that’s fairly easy to get right. It’s reasonably well established what security mechanisms and encryption algorithms are feasibly breakable and which aren’t. What’s always been the problem (for me) is management.

If you want to do the home-based or “personal” security mechanisms, you have two options: WEP or some variant of WPA (there’s WPA, WPA2 with either TKIP or AES). WEP is fairly trivial to crack given enough packets, so that leaves WPA as being the recommended approach. However, most people will just pick a short and simple WPA password that they can remember so they don’t have to write it down. The downside to this is that by being short and simple, it’s fairly easy to brute-force. Therefore, the recommendation is to pick a pass-string of maximum length (63 chars I believe) and randomness. You’re never going to remember that, so you have to either write it down, or stick it in a text file somewhere. This leads to two problems, a security one and a convenience one. Firstly, if you write it down, someone else can steal it. Secondly, if you’ve got it in a text file, when a guest wants to hook up to the wireless, you have to faff with USB keys and copying and pasting things.

Thankfully, there’s a better way, but it adds complexity. EAP can be used to authenticate clients to a network. It can work on both wired and also wireless and be implemented in a number of ways. On the wireless side, some of those ways are awful (e.g. LEAP which is rather easily broken) and some of those are much better. PEAP seems to be one of the more popular given that it’s fairly widely implemented in wireless clients and isn’t proprietary to one particular company. The wireless access point (WAP) basically sees a client connecting and passes the EAP conversation off to an authentication server, like FreeRADIUS. Great, but you’ve got to maintain your own FreeRADIUS server and database of users. Not a problem in a corporate environment (at which this approach is targeted) but a bit overkill for the home. Still I like tinkering with things, so I ran this for a year.

But then, problems. Getting your wireless client / WAP / FreeRADIUS server all talking nicely can be a bit of a black art. It’s not helped by things like Debian’s decision not to compile SSL (and therefore TLS, TTLS and PEAP) support into their FreeRAIDUS package. I’ve spent many hours troubleshooting odd little problems which manifest themselves mainly as “the wireless is broken”. Last night was the last straw and I’ve decided that life is too short to waste maintaining services that just seem to break all the time. It’s been fun getting it working, but it’s not for me. Back to USB sticks and long pass strings I think.