In our opinion (and we hope you agree with us), planning and building a secure WLAN is not possible without the understanding of various attack methods and their workflow. In this topic, we will give you an overview of how attackers work when they are hacking WLANs.
After refreshing our knowledge about wireless threats and Wi-Fi security mechanisms, let's have a look at the attack methodology used by attackers in the real world. Of course, as with all other types of network attack, wireless attack workflows depend on certain situations and targets, but they still align with the following general sequence in almost all cases:
The first step is planning. Normally, attackers need to plan what are they going to attack, how can they do it, which tools are necessary for the task, when is the best time and place to attack certain targets, and which configuration templates will be useful so that they can be prepared in advance. White-hat hackers or penetration testers need to set schedules and coordinate project plans with their customers, choose contact persons on the customer side, define project deliverables, and do other organizational work if required. As with every penetration testing project, the better a project was planned (and we can use the word "project" for black-hat hackers' tasks), the greater the chances of a successful result.
The next step is surveying. Getting as accurate as possible and as much as possible information about a target is crucial for a successful hack, especially in uncommon network infrastructures. To hack a WLAN or its wireless clients, an attacker would normally collect at least SSIDs or MAC addresses of access points and clients and information about the security type in use. It is also very helpful for an attacker to understand if WPS is enabled on a target access point. All that data allows attackers not only to set proper configs and choose the right options for their tools, but also to choose appropriate attack types and conditions for a certain WLAN or Wi-Fi client. All collected information, especially non-technical (for example, company and department names, brands, or employee names), can also become useful at the cracking phase to build dictionaries for brute-force attacks.
Depending on the type of security and attacker's luck, data collected at the survey phase can even make the active attack phase unnecessary and allow an attacker to proceed directly with the cracking phase. The active attacks phase involves active interaction between an attacker and targets (WLANs and Wi-Fi clients). At this phase, attackers have to create conditions necessary for a chosen attack type and execute it. It includes sending various Wi-Fi management and control frames and installing rogue access points. If an attacker wants to cause a denial of service in a target WLAN as a goal, such attacks are also executed at this phase. Some of active attacks are essential for successfully hacking a WLAN, but some of them are intended to just speed up hacking and can be omitted to avoid causing alarm on various wireless intrusion detection/prevention systems (WIDPS), which can possibly be installed in a target network. Thus, the active attacks phase can be called optional.
Cracking is another important phase where an attacker cracks 4-way handshakes, WEP data, NTLM hashes, and so on, which were intercepted at the previous phases. There are plenty of various free and commercial tools and services including cloud cracking services. In the case of success at this phase, an attacker gets the target WLAN's secret(s) and can proceed with connecting to the WLAN, decrypt intercepted traffic, and so on.
As both WPA and WPA2 are based on the 4-way handshake, attacking them doesn't differ—an attacker needs to sniff a 4-way handshake in a moment, establishing a connection between an access point and an arbitrary wireless client and brute forcing a matching PSK. It does not matter whose handshake is intercepted, because all clients use the same PSK for a given target WLAN.
Sometimes, attackers have to wait long until a device connects to a WLAN to intercept a 4-way handshake and of course they would like to speed up the process when possible. For that purpose, they force an already connected device to disconnect from the access point sending control frames (deauthentication attack) on behalf of a target access point. When a device receives such a frame, it disconnects from the WLAN and tries to reconnect again if the "automatic reconnect" feature is enabled (it is enabled by default on most devices), thus performing another 4-way handshake that can be intercepted by an attacker.
Another possibility to hack a WPA-PSK protected network is to crack a WPS PIN if WPS is enabled on a target WLAN.
Attacking becomes a little bit more complicated if WPA-Enterprise security is in place, but could be executed in several minutes by a properly prepared attacker by imitating a legitimate access point with a RADIUS server and by gathering user credentials for further analysis (cracking).
To settle this attack, an attacker needs to install a rogue access point with an SSID identical to the target WLAN's SSID and set other parameters (like EAP type) similar to the target WLAN to increase chances of success and reduce the probability of the attack to be quickly detected.
Most user Wi-Fi devices choose an access point for a connection to a certain WLAN by a signal strength—they connect to that one which has the strongest signal. That is why an attacker needs to use a powerful Wi-Fi interface for a rogue access point to override signals from legitimate ones and make devices connect to the rogue access point.
A RADIUS server used during such attacks should have the capability to record authentication data, NTLM hashes, for example.
From a user perspective, being attacked in such way looks like just being unable to connect to a WLAN for an unknown reason and could even be not seen if a user is not using a device at that moment and is just passing by a rogue access point. It is worth mentioning that classic physical security or wireless IDPS solutions are not always effective in such cases. An attacker or a penetration tester can install a rogue access point outside of the range of a target WLAN. It will allow the hacker to attack user devices without the need to get into a physically controlled area (for example, an office building), thus making the rogue access point unreachable and invisible for wireless IDPS systems. Such a place could be a bus or train station, parking lot, or a café where a lot of users of a target WLAN go with their Wi-Fi devices.
Unlike WPA-PSK with only one key shared between all WLAN users, the Enterprise mode employs personified credentials for each user whose credentials could be more or less complex depending only on a certain user. That is why it is better to collect as many user credentials and hashes as possible, thus increasing the chances of successful cracking.