Parallel Active Dictionary Attack on WPA2-PSK Wi-Fi

Parallel Active Dictionary Attack on WPA2-PSK Wi-Fi
Parallel Active Dictionary Attack on WPA2-PSK
Wi-Fi Networks
Omar Nakhila∗ , Afraa Attiah† , Yier Jin‡ and Cliff Zou§
Dept. of EECS, Univ. of Central Florida
Florida, USA
Email: ∗ omar, †, ‡, §
Abstract—Wi-Fi network offers an inexpensive and convenient
way to access the Internet. It becomes even more important
nowadays as we are moving from the traditional computer age
to the current mobile devices and Internet-of-Things age. Wi-Fi
Protected Access II (WPA2) - Pre-shared key (PSK) is the current
security standard used to protect small 802.11 wireless networks.
Most of the available dictionary password-guessing attacks on
WPA2-PSK are based on capturing the four-way handshaking
frames between an authorized wireless client and the Access
Point (AP). These attacks will fail if an attacker is unable
to capture the four-way handshaking frames of a legitimate
client. An attacker also can apply an active dictionary attack by
sending a pass-phrase to the AP and waiting for the response.
However, this attack approach could only achieve a low attack
intensity of testing a few pass-phrases per minute. In this paper,
we develop a new scheme to speed up the active pass-phrase
guessing trials intensity based on two novel ideas: First, the
scheme mimics multiple Wi-Fi clients connecting to the AP at the
same time—each emulated Wi-Fi client has its own spoofed MAC
address; Second, each emulated Wi-Fi client could try many passphrases using a single wireless session without the need to pass
the 802.11 authentication and association stages for every passphrase guess. We have developed a working prototype and our
experiments show that the proposed scheme can improve active
dictionary pass-phrase guessing speed by 100-fold compared to
the traditional single client attack.
Index Terms—Wi-Fi security, WPA2-PSK, Dictionary attack.
The IEEE 802.11 Wireless Local Area Network (WLAN)
standard is widely used for connecting various wireless and
mobile devices to the Internet [1]. WLAN is a low cost
network that supports high throughput transmission. The
convenience of eliminating the use of wires makes WLAN
easier to implement and adequate to user needs. However,
securing these types of networks is more challenging than
wired networks [2]. To protect its wireless clients, WLAN uses
authentication/encryption protocols to ensure confidentiality,
integrity and availability (CIA).
WLAN’s security evolved over three major stages throughout its road to protect wireless clients [2]. First, Wired
Equivalent Privacy (WEP) was the original security standard
protocol. However, researchers found many vulnerabilities in
WEP that can expose clients wireless data in a matter of
seconds [3]. This led to the emergence of the second stage
security standard of Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA). WPA was
created to support legacy wireless devices and at the same time
to patch WEP defects [4]. The current and the third WLAN
security stage was accomplished by introducing WPA2. The
design of WPA2 was not limited by hardware constraints like
WPA. WPA2 uses AES (Advanced Encryption Standard) and
CCMP (Counter Mode CBC MAC Protocol) by default, which
provides stronger encryption than WPA [2] [4].
Both WPA and WPA2 have two modes of operation. The
first mode is Pre-shared key (PSK) or personal mode, which
is designated for small office / home office (SOHO) wireless
networks. In this mode, an access point (AP) will use only one
pass-phrase (8 to 63 characters in length) to authenticate wireless clients. Each client should use the same exact pass-phrase
stored in AP to pass the authentication process successfully. If
a WLAN’s administrator wants to change the pass-phrase, he
needs to change the pass-phrase in all wireless clients and APs.
For WLANs in large cooperations, changing the pass-phrase
on all wireless clients and APs is not practical [5].
The second mode, also called Enterprise mode, needs administrators to set up a dedicated Remote Authentication DialIn User Service (RADIUS). Each user will have a unique user
name and password to be authenticated by the RADIUS server.
After the authentication process completes successfully, the
AP will receive a random key from the RADIUS server to
protect the wireless communication [5].
The dictionary pass-phrase attack is one of the popular
attacks on WPA2-PSK [2]. Since PSK will be the main key to
protect WLAN, the attacker will try to guess the pass-phrase
used to generate PSK. This can be done by capturing the
initial WPA2-PSK handshaking between a legitimate wireless
client and the AP. After capturing the handshaking frames, the
attacker will use offline dictionary word guessing software to
recover the pass-phrase.
In this paper, we present a new scheme to apply online
dictionary attacks on WPA2-PSK. The main contributions of
this paper are:
• To our knowledge, all the available implementations
of the dictionary pass-phrase attack on WPA2-PSK are
offline based attacks and they will fail if there is no
legitimate wireless client connected to the AP or in the
process of connecting to the AP. In this scenario, all offline brute force implementations will not work since they
will need the initial WPA2-PSK four-way handshaking
frames between the AP and a legitimate wireless client.
On the other hand, online dictionary attacks will still
work in this scenario.
We present two novel techniques to speed up the online
dictionary attack process. First, we create parallel virtual
wireless clients (VWC) authenticating at the same time
to an AP. Each VWC will emulate a standalone wireless
client. Second, we enable each VWC to guess the PSK
multiple times within a single wireless session. Each
VWC will keep guessing the WPA2 pass-phrase until it
receives a de-authentication frame from the AP.
• Finally our online dictionary attack was implemented
and evaluated in a real-life environment using different
off-the-shelf wireless APs. Our testings showed that the
proposed scheme can speed up the password guessing
process by 100-fold compared to the traditional online
single-client attack.
The paper is organized as follows. Section II discusses
related works. In Section III we explain how WPA2-PSK
works. The design of the new online dictionary attack and
the developed prototype is presented in Section IV. Then,
we evaluate the performance of our attack in Section V.
Finally, limitations and conclusions are presented in the last
two sections,VI and VII, respectively.
WPA2-PSK uses state of the art AES/CCMP to protect
wireless client data. The PSK length is 256 bits or 64 octets
represented as a hex number. However, since it is more convenient for users to remember ASCII keys than hex numbers,
users will use a pass-phrase that consists of 8 to 63 characters.
The pass-phrase is then mapped to PSK. This mapping will
drop the security of WPA2-PSK to about 2.5 bits per character
[6]. Pass-phrases less than 20 characters are vulnerable to
dictionary attacks.
The most feasible technique to bypass WPA2-PSK security
is by recovering the pass-phrase from the four-way handshaking communication. Most of the available implementations are
based on the offline dictionary attack against the four way
handshake. In this section we will categorize these attacks
into two parts, offline and online.
For the offline attack, one of the most popular software
suits used to brute-force PSK using a dictionary work list
is Aircrack-ng [7]. First, the four-way handshaking must
be captured between legitimate wireless clients willing to
connect to the AP. Capturing the four-way handshaking can be
accomplished by using Airodump-ng software. If the wireless
client is already connected to the AP, then the attacker can use
Aireplay-ng which will force the wireless to de-authenticate
and start the four-way handshake again [8].
After the attacker captures the four-way handshake,
Aircrack-ng will start the offline dictionary pass-phrase guessing attack to recover the pass-phrase. On the other hand, other
offline software can speed up the offline pass-phrase guessing
attack by utilizing a GPU (e.g., Hashcat [9]).
However, all the previous attacks will fail if there is no legitimate wireless client willing to connect to the AP. Furthermore,
even if there is an already connected wireless client, if the
network is protected using 802.11W [10], the attacker will not
be able to de-authenticate the connected clients. In contrast,
our proposed technique will not be based on the condition of
having a legitimate wireless client.
For the online attack, in 2007, the Wi-Fi alliance introduced
Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS), which is an optional feature
to help wireless clients connect to a WLAN with ease, while
providing protection at the same time [11]. One of the methods
used by WPS to authenticate a user is by asking him to enter an
8 digit PIN number written on the back of the AP. Knowing the
PIN will reveal the pass-phrase used to drive the WPA2-PSK
keys. However, due to poor design of WPS, using Reaver [12]
software, the attacker can apply an online brute force attack
and recover the PIN without having a legitimate wireless client
Since WPS is an optional feature, an AP may not support it.
Also, some manufactures limit the number of times a wireless
client can enter a wrong PIN number. If the wireless client
exceeded that limit, the WPS method will be locked for a
certain amount of time. Both of these cases will limit the attack
on WPS. On the other hand, our proposed technique will not
be affected by the availability of WPS. Furthermore, WPA2PSK is not be limited by the number of times a wireless client
can enter an incorrect pass-phrase.
The aim of our techniques is to improve the online dictionary attack speed on WPA2-PSK. The online attack does not
require a legitimate wireless client to be present. In this section
we will explain how a wireless client and an AP generate and
exchange the keys used to protect WLANs using the WPA2PSK suite.
A. Key Generation
The pass-phrase of WPA2-PSK is pre-installed in both
the AP and the wireless client. The pass-phrase is secret
information that will be used to derive all the required keys
used to protect WLAN. More than one key will be generated
and each one of them is used for different purposes. In general,
there are seven keys involved in the protection of WPA2-PSK
networks [13].
First, before WPA2-PSK key generation starts, an 802.11
wireless client has to authenticate and associate to the AP
as shown in Figure 1 [14]. The WPA2-PSK four-way handshaking procedure starts when the wireless client passes the
authentication and the association states. The names of these
Fig. 1: 802.11 Authentication and association states.
Fig. 2: WPA2-PSK key generation.
two states are somewhat misleading since both states do not
have any type of security. It is merely a formality procedure
used by wireless clients and an AP to exchange capability
Second, after the wireless client is authenticated and associated to the AP, the WPA2-PSK four-way handshake will start.
WPA2-PSK uses a Pre-shared key (PSK) which is derived
from the pass-phrase that was entered manually on both the
wireless client and the AP. The pass-phrase length is 8 to 63
characters. Using a Password-Based Key Derivation Function
2 (PBKDF2), the pass-phrase, SSID and SSID length are
hashed 4096 times to produce a 256-bit Pair Master Key
(PMK) as shown in Figure 2. PMK is the same for every
pair of SSID and pass-phrase.
Third, PMK, the phrase “Pairwise key expansion”, AP’s
MAC address and the wireless client’s MAC address, a random number generated by the AP (ANonce) and a random
number generated by the wireless client (SNonce) will be
fed to a pseudo-random function (PRF) to produce Pair
Temporary Key (PTK). The length of the PTK in the WPA2PSK(AES/CCMP) is 384 bits. [13].
Fourth, PTK will be divided into three keys as shown in
Figure 2 where :
• Key Confirmation Key (KCK 128 bits) which is used
to provide data integrity in the four-way handshaking
• Key Encryption Key (KEK 128 bits) which is used to
protect the four-way handshaking communication.
• Temporal Key (TK 128 bits) is used to protect wireless
All the previous keys are used to ensure integrity and
confidentially and are used in unicast communication between
the AP and the wireless client. On the other hand, the AP
will generate a Group Temporal Key (GTK) and send it to
the wireless client. GTK is used by wireless clients and AP
to send broadcast data to the wireless network. The AP uses
KEK to protect GTK while sending it to the wireless client.
B. Keys Exchange
Both the AP and the wireless client rely on the fourway handshake communication to confirm the possession
of PSK. The four-way handshake procedure starts after the
wireless client authenticates and associates (Figure 1) to the
AP. Four-way handshake consists of four messages as shown
in Figure 3 [6].Extensible Authentication Protocol (EAP) over
LAN (EAPoL) is used to carryout the four-way handshaking
messages between both parties.
Fig. 3: WPA2-PSK four-way handshaking.
First, the AP sends Message 1 which contains an ANouse
using EAPOL. ANouse is a 32 digit random number generated
by the AP. When the wireless client receives Message 1, it will
have all of the required parameters to derive PTK from PSK
as shown in Figure 2. At this point, KCK, KEK and TPK are
generated on the wireless client side. The wireless client then
creates Message 2 which contains SNonce and the Message
Integrity Code (MIC). Where SNonce is also a 32 digit random
number which is generated by the wireless client.
MIC is used to ensure the integrity of Message 2. MIC
is calculated on the whole EAPOL header plus the KCK
(MIC(EAPOL,KCK)). When the AP receives Message 2, it
extracts SNonce and derives KCK,KEK and TPK. Furthermore, the AP will calculate Message 2 MIC and compare it
with the MIC received from the wireless client.
Message 3 is sent from the AP to the wireless client and it
contains the GTK encrypted using KEK and MIC. Message 4
will be sent from the wireless client to the AP to confirm a
successful end of the four-way handshaking. When the attacker
receives Message 3 from the AP, they can confirm that the
pass-phrase used in the creation of Message 2 was correct.
Active dictionary attacks on the pass-phrase of the WPA2PSK can be applied since most APs do not limit the number
of trials a wireless client can input using an incorrect passphrase. In our paper, we present two novel techniques to
speed up the active dictionary attack. The following two
subsections illustrate the design and the implementation of
proposed techniques.
A. Proposed design
WPA2 was designed to provide security to WLAN. WPA2PSK is designated for small office / home office networks
and to be used without the need of a RADIUS server. The
strength of WPA2-PSK security depends on how complicated
the pass-phrase is. In this paper, we introduce a new proposed
design that utilizes two novel techniques to speed up online
pass-phrase guessing speed.
The proposed design is based on applying an active dictionary attack on WPA2-PSK. The aim of the attack is to recover
the pass-phrase without the need of capturing the four-way
handshaking between a legitimate wireless client and the AP.
Our software tries to automatically guess the pass-phrase by
selecting a certain pass-phrase from a dictionary word list and
creating Message 2 of the four-way handshaking. The program
then sends Message 2 to the AP and waits for a reply. If the AP
replies with Message 3 then, we have guessed the correct passphrase. When the AP replies with Message 1 to our Message 2
then, the pass-phrase used to create Message 2 was incorrect.
The major hurdle of the active dictionary attack is the passphrase guessing speed. Some APs will take a certain amount
of time to reply to Message 2 of the four-way handshake,
especially when the pass-phrase used to build Message 2 was
wrong. Also, our program on the attacker’s machine will take
some time to filter responses received from the AP since the
attacker will receive all the Wi-Fi frames transmitted on that
channel. Furthermore, transmission propagation will add more
delay time to pass-phrase guessing speed.
To speed up the WPA2-PSK pass-phrase guessing process,
the first novel technique we present in our active dictionary
attack is to let the attacking program initiate multiple virtual
wireless clients (VWCs). Each VWC acts as a real client trying
to connect to the AP. All these VWCs are generated from
one wireless interface card. A VWC will use a spoofed MAC
address when communicating with the AP.
To further speed up the PSK guessing process, the second
novel technique we present in our active dictionary attack is
to enable each VWC to try more than one pass-phrase for
each wireless session. This technique speeds up the attack
since the VWC will not have to pass 802.11 authentication
and association states every time a new pass-phrase is tested.
A single VWC will keep trying different pass-phrases until it
is de-authenticated from the AP as shown in Figure-4.
B. Implementation
Our technique was implemented using C language on a
Linux machine. Using the LORCON [15] library, we were
able to inject and receive 802.11 wireless frames. LORCON
is a cross-platform virtual interface that allows us to send and
receive crafted 802.11 frames.
Our main program creates multiple processes where each
process acts as a standalone wireless client. Each VWC will
pick a randomly spoofed MAC address and start a wireless
session to the AP. The main program will keep monitoring
the state of each process.
After a VWC passes the authentication and association
stages of the 802.11 WLANs, the VWC will begin the fourway handshake to the AP. Using a dictionary word list, the
VWC will create Message 2 and send it to the AP. If the AP
responds with Message 3 then the pass-phrase was correct
otherwise the VWC will try another pass-phrase from the
dictionary word list.
When the AP receives an incorrect pass-phrase, it will
respond with Message 1. The VWC will disconnect from the
AP and start a new wireless session to the AP with a different
Fig. 4: Our proposed parallel active WPA2-PSK attack design.
Where M1, M2 and M3 are the first three messages of the four-way
handshaking. M4 message is omitted since it is only a confirmation
frame from a VWC to the AP to indicate a successful end of the
four-way handshaking procedure.
MAC address. After that, the VWC can inject another passphrase to the AP.
To further speed up the attack, we noticed that since the
AP did not send any de-authentication frames due to the
incorrect pass-phrase in Message 2, we can inject another
pass-phrase using Message 2 within the same wireless session.
This will further speed up the attack progress since the VWC
does not have to send authentication and association frames
again. The program will keep trying pass-phrases until the AP
sends a de-authentication frame with reason code 02 (previous
authentication no longer valid). At this point, the VWC will
stop the current wireless session and start a new wireless
session with a different MAC address.
We evaluated our proposed technique by initiating the attack
on three different wireless routers. The wireless routers used
in the test bed were DLink 601, Cisco Linksys EA3500 and
Xiaomi Router Mini. Each wireless router was restored to its
default setting, then we enabled the WPA2-PSK protection in
each router with a certain pass-phrase. The attacking computer
has an Atheros chipset WLAN card and was installed with Kali
Linux. The APs and the attacker’s WLAN card used 802.11g
as their wireless communication standard.
During the attack, our prototype program will try our two
techniques at the same time. For each AP, the first technique
starts by creating multiple VWCs where each one of them will
try only one pass-phrase at a time and wait for the response
Fig. 5: Comparison between three different wireless routers against our proposed attack where (a) Cisco Linksys
EA3500, (b)
Dlink DIR-601 (c) Xiaomi Router Mini.
from the AP. After the client sends Message 2 of the four-way
handshaking to the AP, if the AP replied with Message 3 then
the pass-phrase was correct. However, if the AP replied with
Message 1 then the pass-phrase was wrong. The VWC will
be de-authenticated from the AP and change its MAC address
and start a new wireless session.
The second technique will also create multiple VWCs.
However, when one VWC receives Message 1 as response
to Message 2 (guessed pass-phrase is incorrect), it will not
proceed with de-authentication. Instead, the VWC will pick
another pass-phrase and create Message 2 and send it to the
AP again. The VWC will keep sending Message 2 repeatedly
until it receives de-authentication frame from the AP. At this
point the VWC will change its MAC address and start a new
wireless session.
To measure how many pass-phrases we can test at the
same time using both techniques, for each trial,the program
increases the number of VWCs from 1 to a certain number.
During the test, each AP responded differently to our attack
as shown in Figure 5.
For the three APs, the attack speed of the traditional online
dictionary attack (one wireless client and single pass-phrase
per wireless session) is shown as the first data point in each
graph of Figure 5. For example, the traditional attack speed for
the Dlink wireless router, as shown in the first data point on
Figure5b, is 18 pass-phrases per minute. Increasing the number
of VWCs will increase the intensity of the active dictionary
attack. When each VWC tests more than one pass-phrase per
wireless session, the attack effectiveness will further increase
as shown in Figure 5-6.
When a single VWC tries multiple pass-phrase guessing at
the same wireless session against Dlink wireless router, the
attack intensity was on average 18 pass-phrases per minute as
shown in Figure 5b-6a. In Figure 6, the average pass-phrase
guessing speed can be calculated by dividing the total number
of pass-phrases by 10 minutes. The total number of passphrases in Figure 6 is the summation of multiplying the passphrases(x-axis) with the wireless session (y-axis). Increasing
the number of VWCs to 120 gave us the maximum passphrase attack guessing speed for the Dlink wireless router—on
average 1833 pass-phrases per minute as shown in Figure 5b6b. The pass-phrase guessing attack speed improvement for the
Dlink wireless router at this point is about 100-fold. However,
further increasing the number of VWCs to more than 120
will have negative impact on the pass-phrase guessing attack
speed. As shown in Figure-5b-6c, when we have more than
120 VWCs attacking the Dlink wireless router, the pass-phrase
guessing speed drops.
Both Figures 5 and Figure 6 show that the number of
pass-phrase guesses will drop when the number of VWCs
passes a certain threshold. This is because increasing the
number of VWCs for each AP will increase the traffic on
the wireless channel. Delay time and frame loss will increase
when the wireless channel becomes saturated to a certain
point that many wireless sessions will time out, and hence,
reduces the overall attack speed. To prove that, Figure 7
shows a comparison between attacking Dlink wireless router
with 120 VWC before and after the wireless channel being
relatively busy. We say relatively busy because the 802.11g
wireless channel during our test may get busy since it is
a shared medium by other wireless clients. In Figure 7 we
applied a continuous wireless data transmission from another
wireless client during the full length of the attack to simulate a
busy channel. The pass-phrase guessing speed when we have
120 VWC attacking at the same time dropped from 1833
pass-phrases per minute (Figure 5b-6b) when the channel is
relatively idle to 247 pass-phrases per minute when the channel
is relatively busy.
In this paper, we presented an online active dictionary
attack to tackle the current Wi-Fi home security protocol
(WPA2-PSK). Our proposed attack is based on the following
assumptions. First, by default, the AP does not filter the
wireless client MAC addresses. Second, WPA2-PSK does not
limit the number of trials a wireless client can take to enter the
pass-phrase. All AP devices we tested so far satisfied these two
assumptions, and thus are vulnerable to the proposed attack.
Furthermore, WLAN administrators may install more than
one AP to expand the wireless coverage signal [16]. Since all
APs will belong to the same Extended Service Set Identification (ESSID), our attack can be distributed to all APs. In
this scenario, the attack speed will further increase with the
increasing number of APs in the ESSID.
Our proposed attack will be limited by the wireless channel bandwidth and the response time of the AP. However,
nowadays, the new 802.11ac standard provides high bandwidth
Fig. 6: Pass-phrases guessing trials per each wireless session against Dlink wireless router where (a) One .VWC, (b) 120 VWC
and (c) 220 VWC.
the VWCs will start guessing the pass-phrase of the WPA2PSK in a parallel manner. Second, as long as the wireless
session is active, a VWC will keep guessing the pass-phrase
repeatedly until a de-authentication frame is received from
the AP. Our proposed attack was implemented and evaluated
using different types of off-the-shelf wireless APs. Our results
showed that the two proposed techniques may improve the
attack speed up to 100-fold compared to the traditional single
client active dictionary attack.
Fig. 7: Comparison between pass-phrase guessing trials per each
wireless session when we have congested vs not-congested wireless
channel using the same number of VWCs (120) againt Dlink wireless
wireless channels that can reach up to 1 Gbps [17] compared to
54Mbps for 802.11g. In addition, more powerful SOHO APs
[18] are being developed that have more processing power
which will reduce the response time of the AP.
Offline dictionary attacks are generally faster than online
dictionary attack since the offline attack is not limited by
AP and the wireless channel bandwidth. However, offline
dictionary attack will fail if the attacker is unable to capture
the four-way handshaking between a legitimate wireless client
and the AP. In this scenario, our technique will be a feasible
solution to recover the WPA2-PSK pass-phrase.
Finally, online dictionary attacks can target any network
authentication/authorization device to gain access to it. Not
limiting the number and the speed of pass-guessing trials will
significantly magnify the danger of this type of attack. For
example, recently many Apple distributed iCloud accounts
have been hacked by using pass-guessing dictionary attack
since the attacker was able to try many passwords without
being blocked by Apple servers [19].
Active WPA2-PSK dictionary attacks can be used to recover
pass-phrase when the attacker is unable to capture the four-way
handshaking frames between the AP and an authorized user.
In this paper, the speed of the active WPA2-PSK dictionary
guessing attack was improved by implementing two novel
techniques. First, an attacker will create multiple virtual wireless clients (VWCs) using a single WLAN interface card. Each
VWC will emulate a standalone wireless client to the AP. All
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