30-Second Summary:

  • Network security keys allow users to establish a secure connection to protect them from cyberattacks while online.

  • The terms “network security key” and “password” are often used interchangeably, but this can be misleading.

  • There are different types of security keys, with new technology just recently released.

  • Secure network connections are vital with the growing use of hotspots, home networks, and the contemporary near total reliance on online resources. The right network security key can help achieve safe, secure networks.

  • Keep reading to learn the basics about network security keys and to understand the similarities and differences with passwords.


Purpose of a Network Security Key

Just like you need a key to enter the locked, front door of your house, you need a security key to gain access to a network. The network security key is a network password or passphrase used to provide authorization for a user to use a device on a local area network (LAN).

For the owner of the network, the network key prevents unauthorized access. For users, the key gives them confidence their information is safe and protected while using the internet.

Where and How are Network Security Keys Used?

The most familiar application of network keys today is with private networks, such as a home network. A printer, smart TV, smartphone, and other devices all connect to the router forming the personal network. The router is in turn connected to the modem which brings internet service into the house.

Network Security Keys at Home

In order to gain access to the internet, you first need to connect your device to the Wi-Fi. To use your iPhone or iPad, for example, you will go to settings to enter the network security key (or wireless password). The key you enter allows your Wi-Fi router to “talk” to the devices, thus, allowing you to get online. Your sister, mother, and anyone else who wants to join your home Wi-Fi will enter the same network security key across their connected devices as well.

Network Security Keys at Work

Small business networks follow the same structure as home networks. However, with most businesses now offering customers free Wi-Fi access, or hotspots, they typically establish a two-router network. The public would then access the Wi-Fi network via one router, whereas the business operations would be kept private using a different network security key on the other router.

Customers could access the Wi-Fi from their Chromebook, PC, Mac, or mobile device by selecting the name of the public Wi-Fi hotspot (SSID) from the list displayed in the wireless settings, enter the Wi-Fi password (network security key), and connect. Your business’s private network would be visible, but not accessible since your network security key would not be known to your customers.

So Isn’t a Network Security Key Just a Password?

Not exactly. A security key may sound a lot like a password, in fact, we even use ‘password’ in the definition, and it is entered like a password, but a security key is so much more. The security key is a technical term associated with hardware, like wireless routers and modems. Each network, then, has a different type of security key depending on the maker of the network device.

A network security key is the encryption key that protects your internet. Security keys can be viewed as cybersecurity tools that are critical for protecting against nefarious entities that might seem to collect personal information, steal identities, compromise financial data, and silently listen to—or watch—users. In other words, according to the U. S. Department of Homeland Security, using the appropriate network security key prevents unauthorized users from accessing and viewing your data.

The network administrator has full control of network security keys and network settings, and can control whether a user can get onto the internet. Network administrators should select the highest level of security available to protect their business data and the users. The type of security key and a strong password determine how safe the network is from hackers.

Different Types of Network Security Keys

The most common types of network security keys that provide authorization to wireless networks and help protect confidential data are Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA), Wi-Fi Protected Access 2 (WPA2), and Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP).


WEP keys are the earliest form of network security keys, and are now being phased out. The WEP encryption method allows everyone using the key to see other user’s information and security flaws in it made for an easy target for hackers.

WPA and WPA2

WPA and WPA2 keys are upgrades to WEP requiring a network security key in order to initiate access to the network. For both of these keys, after the validation, the exchange of data between the host device and the access point is encrypted.

WPA2 is a more secure upgrade to WPA using an advanced encryption standard (AES)-based encryption mode. WPA and WPA2 are used for home networks and small-scale office networks.


WPA3 is the most recent, and offers the strongest encryption, but is not widely available.

You can check which security method is enabled and find your network security key by accessing your router and looking at the manufacturer’s sticker. See this article on Lifewire for information on finding keys on your router, Windows 10, and Android devices.

Keep Your Networks Safe and Secure

Your network security keys may be determined by your company’s security protocol or may even be mandated by government regulations. Whatever option you have, ensure all known vulnerabilities are addressed.

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