A network security key is a form of a physical, digital, signature, or biometric data used to authorize a user to connect with the private network. Essentially, it’s a Wi-Fi or wireless network password.
The key provides a secure connection between the requesting client and the serving network or wireless device, such as a router. Without this key, anyone could access the network and potentially cause harm.
Types of network security keys
Every secured network will have a network security key, but not all networks have the same kind of security. The most common types of network security keys are Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) and Wi-Fi Protected Access versions 1, 2, and 3 (WPA, WPA2, WPA3)
Created in 1999, WEP encrypts data between clients using a 40-bit key encryption code. WEP keys generally aren’t in use anymore as the encryption can be cracked within minutes. Most modern access points and routers don’t support WEP.
Created in 2003, WPA still has relatively poor security but is a step up from WEP and is easier to configure. WPA uses Temporal Key Integrity Protocol (TKIP) for a more secure encryption.
As the Wi-Fi Alliance made the transition from WEP to WPA, they had to keep some elements of WEP so that older devices would still be compatible. Because of this, many vulnerabilities are present in WPA, most glaringly how easy it is to hack the Wi-Fi Protected Setup feature, designed to link devices to modern access points.
Created just a year later in 2004, WPA2 has stronger security and is easier to configure than WEP and WPA. WPA2 uses Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) instead of TKIP. A notable vulnerability of WPA2 is that if someone has access to the network, they can attack other devices that are also connected to the network.
The Wi-Fi Alliance introduced WPA3 in 2018. It improves the level of security compared to WPA2 by offering privacy on public Wi-Fi networks, protection against brute-force attacks, an easier connection process for devices without displays, and higher security for government, defence, and industrial applications.
The WPA3 certification was made mandatory for all new Wi-Fi certifications beginning July 1, 2020.
How to find your network security key
On a router
If you have a new router or access point, the network security key is most often located on a label on the bottom or back of the device. Each manufacturer’s label is different, so look for the one of the following phrases:
- Passwork (the network security key)
- Wireless password
- WPA key
Once you locate the phrase, enter the password indicated to connect to your wireless network.
On Windows 10
If you have a Windows 10 device already connected to the wireless network, you can find the key in the network settings. For Windows 10, follow these steps:
- Right-click on the Start Menu
- Click Network Connections
- Click Network and Sharing Center
- Click on your wireless network
- Click Wireless Properties
- Navigate to the Security tab. The password will be masked.
- Select the Show Characters checkbox, and your network security key will appear
For Apple’s macOS operating system, follow these steps:
- Click the search icon (magnifying glass)
- Search for Keychain Access
- Within Keychain Access, search in the top right corner for your Wi-Fi network
- Double click on your network
- Select the Show Password checkbox
- Enter the password you use to access your Mac, and your network security key will appear