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Secure Your Wireless with IPsec

by Dan Langille

Wireless access is all the rage. Wireless this, wireless that. Hot spots are turning up everywhere. Many are free. Many have absolutely no security. There are several in my neighborhood. I have no idea who is running them, but at least one is wide open.

This article will show you one method for locking down your wireless network so that nobody but you can use it. This approach will take you beyond WEP and MAC address filtering, both of which are a good start but have known exploits. This article expands upon the IPsec foundation and demonstrates an easy method for securing your Wireless Access Point (WAP).

I will be using FreeBSD 4.10-Stable for this excursion. Please keep your hands and legs within the vehicle at all times. In case of emergency, please follow the directions of your crew. They know what to do.

While writing this article, I have assumed the following:

  • You have wireless access on your laptop.
  • You have a gateway already set up that will link your wireless and wired subnets.
  • Your WAP is set up as follows:
    • You have the SSID set.
    • Traffic is flowing.
    • You changed the default admin password.

Related Reading

Building Wireless Community Networks
By Rob Flickenger

Why Bother with Wireless?

Wireless is practically wide open for anyone with a laptop, a wireless card, and the appropriate set of tools. WEP is defeatable. MAC addresses are sniffable and spoofable. In short, you need the next level: IPsec.

If wireless is so risky, why use it?


Wireless is convenient. There are no cables to run. Anyone can pop down to the local Future Shop, buy a wireless access point, plug it in, turn it on, and start surfing the 802.11 information superhighway. Does this sound familiar? It should. I did it and I wrote about it. I did the right thing. I filtered by MAC address. I turned on WEP. Then I turned off WEP when I had trouble. Yes, I was vulnerable, but no one compromised my system ... as far as I know.

Since writing that article nearly 18 months ago, I have moved to a new house. I've gone through the same process I did last time, setting up a new rack and running some cables through the walls. This time I convinced myself that I would set up a secure wireless network. It took me a few hours, but I finally figured it out.

To answer the original question of this section and to tie it in with my recent move, I use wireless so I don't have to run cables. I want to use the laptop in the living room, the dining room, or on the front step. (I'm actually typing this into my Windows XP workstation sitting at my desk in the basement, SSH'd into the new Antec box.) As I work wirelessly, I want to keep people off my private network and keep prying eyes away from my communications. I can do that with IPsec.

Also in my mind is my neighbor, I don't know who, but somebody running a WAP nearby, totally unsecured. I know how easy it would be for me to use that internet connection. I don't want someone using mine.

What Is IPsec?

IPsec is short for IP security. It is a set of protocols for securely exchanging packets at the IP layer. VPNs frequently use it. We can use the same approach to secure our wireless network.

IPsec uses shared secrets to encrypt data. It also uses security policies to decide what types of traffic to encrypt between which hosts.

FreeBSD-specific details

This section outlines some of the details that are specific to IPsec on FreeBSD. Regardless of the operating system you wish to use, you will need an IPsec-enabled kernel. On FreeBSD, add the following directives to your kernel configuration file, and then compile a new kernel:

options IPSEC         #IP security
options IPSEC_ESP     #IP security (crypto; define w/ IPSEC)
options IPSEC_DEBUG   #debug for IP security

I haven't actually used the features of IPSEC_DEBUG, but it's there if I need it.

Note: If you are running 5.x, use FAST_IPSEC instead of the directives mentioned above. Also remove INET6, as FAST_IPSEC does not support it.

Add the following directive to /etc/rc.conf to set up your IPsec database at boot time:


That directive will load your IPsec configuration directives from /etc/ipsec.conf. (You can configure the actual filename using ipsec_file="/your/file/here". I will give you examples for that file later in this article.)

Walk First, Then Run

I'm a big believer in starting small and working one's way toward a goal. For my testing, I first tried IPsec over my wired network, then moved it over to the wireless network. You may find this strategy useful too. It allows you to concentrate on the IPsec portion of the problem, make it work, and then concern yourself with any wireless issues. After you have IPsec running properly, you can remove the wire and start using 802.11 instead.

For this testing, I created a new gateway and put two NICs into the box. This box does NAT (Network Address Translation) using ipnat and will use ipf as a firewall. It's easier to manage with the entire wireless network in a separate subnet. If necessary, I can disconnect the entire subnet by unplugging a single cable or powering off the WAP.

Your NAT box will want to do some forwarding of packets. I recommend the use of ipf and ipnat. I also use ipmon. I have these entries in /etc/rc.conf:


Firewall and NAT rules are beyond the scope of this article, but those two links should give you a running start.

A Short Introduction to IPsec

IPsec can create a point-to-point tunnel between two hosts. Being encrypted, the data will be safe from prying eyes, and the gateway won't accept modified packets, since they lack an authentic signature. IPsec can also secure traffic between two networks or a network and a gateway. Other configuration options are available, but I will concentrate on just network, not point to point.

The key point to realize is that IPsec cannot exist on its own. You need to have IPsec at both ends of the communication. You cannot just slap IPsec onto your laptop and expect it to work wherever you go. This is why I have decided to create a wireless gateway through which all my wireless traffic will flow.

Network diagram

The following diagram (created with Xfig) illustrates my wireless network. My laptop sits at and communicates over wireless (802.11) to my WAP. The WAP connects to a dedicated gateway box (via a hub) which sits between the WAP and my LAN.

Figure 1. Wireless network

Any traffic coming in over the wireless network must pass through the WAP and then the wireless gateway. This gateway has two NICs (one at, the other at These are conventional, wired NICS. There is no Wifi in this gateway, but there certainly could be. I have chosen to use a WAP instead. The WAP plugs into a hub, and on the gateway plugs into the same HUB. The other NIC plugs into the main LAN.

The IPsec database

IPsec uses a database to decide how to treat traffic. The database contains the rules on what traffic to encrypt and how to encrypt it. The two main types of rules are policy and association. The Security Policy Database (SPD) determines what traffic IPsec should handle. The Security Association Database (SAD) specifies how to encrypt that traffic.

The main tool for manipulating the database is setkey(8). I will show you one way to use that tool later. Usually, you place these rules in /etc/ipsec.conf.

Creating the network tunnel

These rules cause the encryption of all traffic between the network ( and the gateway ( We will use ESP (Encapsulating Security Payload) as found in RFC 2406. This ensures that nobody can read your data.

Laptop rules
add esp 691 -E rijndael-cbc "1234567890123456";
add esp 693 -E rijndael-cbc "1234567890123456";

spdadd any -P out ipsec esp/tunnel/;
spdadd any -P in ipsec esp/tunnel/;

The first two rules (add) are SAD entries. The next two rules (spdadd) are SPD entries.

The add items set up the encryption keys for communication between the two computers. Be sure to use different keys; however, if you use IKE you won't need keys. The values shown are just to keep things easy. The spdadd items set up the actual tunnel between the two computers. In brief, the above directives mean:

  1. Between and, use the index 691, the encryption algorithm known as rijndael-cbc, and use a shared secret of "1234567890123456".
  2. Similarly, in the other direction between and, use the index 693, the same encryption algorithm, and the same shared secret.
  3. All outgoing communication between the network ( and everywhere else ( must go (require) through a tunnel.
  4. In the other direction, incoming communication between everywhere else ( and the network ( must come (require) from a tunnel.
Gateway rules

The rules for the gateway are very similar to the laptop rules and also are slightly symmetric.

add esp 691 -E rijndael-cbc "1234567890123456";
add esp 693 -E rijndael-cbc "1234567890123456";

spdadd any -P in ipsec esp/tunnel/;
spdadd any -P out ipsec esp/tunnel/;

You can add these rules manually using setkey -c and then copy and paste the rules from above (after making adjustments so they refer to your IP addresses, not mine). To exit, press Ctrl-D. When testing, I actually keep it running and copy and paste the commands directly. I use these commands to clear out existing database entries before adding new ones.


The flush command clears out the SAD entries, while spdflush clears out the SPD entries.

In the policy statements (spdadd), the second line above states that all traffic from to anywhere requires ESP. The fourth line states that all traffic from anywhere to also requires ESP. Combined, these two directives ensure that all traffic from anywhere to anywhere on this network must use ESP.

While I tested these rules, I kept them on a local web site. That made it easier to copy and paste the rules from the browser. I'm not suggesting that you publicly publish your rules. This is just a debugging tool. Mind you, the only parts you need to keep secret are the keys (in my example, 1234567890123456).

If you place your rules in /etc/ipsec.conf and have ipsec_enable="YES" in your /etc/rc.conf, the system will load them at boot-up.

When loading the rules, you'll need to coordinate them. I sat at the gateway console with my laptop beside me. That way, if I messed up the rules, I could reset them without moving. The provided rules worked for me. They should work for you too. If they don't, go back to square one and verify your rules. Ensure that the subnet and the IP addresses are what they should be.

After you implement these rules, the gateway will reject all non-ESP traffic. Furthermore, anyone attempting to communicate with the gateway must have the shared secrets. If you change the secret, nothing will pass the gateway.

Confirming traffic

By this point, you have IPsec on both machines and you have set the IPsec database rules. Traffic is flowing. Now you want to confirm the encapsulation, so nothing should appear in plain text. Here is how I did that.

On my wireless gateway, the dc0 device has an IP address of All traffic from the laptop will come in on that NIC. I issued this command to view that traffic:

# tcpdump -ni dc0 not esp
tcpdump: listening on dc0
13:40:25.651640 > xid:0xebd53d39 [|bootp] [tos 0x10]
13:40:25.656090 > xid:0xebd53d39 Y: S: 
     [|bootp] [tos 0x10]

The above shows dhclient starting on the laptop. A bit of ARP traffic follows. If all you see via tcpdump is stuff like this, then you're good to go.

13:42:18.225304 arp who-has tell
13:42:18.225450 arp reply is-at 0:32:91:32:91:32

If all you see is arp, then you're good to go.

You should see what the IPsec traffic looks like. Have a look. Shorten the above command to this:

# tcpdump -ni dc0
tcpdump: listening on dc0
13:44:34.371866 > ESP(spi=0x000002b5,seq=0xfe)
13:44:34.385237 > ESP(spi=0x000002b3,seq=0xec) 
     (frag 368:1480@0+)
13:44:34.385339 > esp (frag 368:48@1480)
13:44:34.387672 > ESP(spi=0x000002b3,seq=0xed) 
     (frag 369:1480@0+)
13:44:34.387775 > esp (frag 369:48@1480)
13:44:34.390066 > ESP(spi=0x000002b3,seq=0xee) 
     (frag 370:1480@0+)
13:44:34.390165 > esp (frag 370:48@1480)
13:44:34.390996 > ESP(spi=0x000002b3,seq=0xef)
13:44:34.393155 > ESP(spi=0x000002b3,seq=0xf0) 
     (frag 372:1480@0+)
13:44:34.393260 > esp (frag 372:48@1480)
13:44:34.394641 > ESP(spi=0x000002b5,seq=0xff)
13:44:34.396986 > ESP(spi=0x000002b5,seq=0x100)
13:44:34.398044 > ESP(spi=0x000002b3,seq=0xf1) 
     (frag 373:1480@0+)
13:44:34.398142 > esp (frag 373:48@1480)

The above tcpdump is of HTTP traffic as my laptop accessed my development copy of FreshPorts.

Here is how a ping looks:

13:45:39.886113 > ESP(spi=0x000002b5,seq=0x118)
13:45:39.887436 > ESP(spi=0x000002b3,seq=0x10a)
13:45:40.898972 > ESP(spi=0x000002b5,seq=0x119)
13:45:40.900134 > ESP(spi=0x000002b3,seq=0x10b)
13:45:41.908735 > ESP(spi=0x000002b5,seq=0x11a)
13:45:41.909912 > ESP(spi=0x000002b3,seq=0x10c)

Note: this is all ESP. The following is an example of traffic that does not use IPsec:

$ sudo tcpdump -ni fxp1
tcpdump: listening on fxp1
13:47:39.130953 > P 903783889:903783933(44) 
     ack 4184487194 win 58400 (DF) [tos 0x10]
13:47:39.151794 > . ack 305831024 win 64160 (DF)
13:47:39.252127 > . ack 44 win 64028 (DF)
13:47:39.621526 > icmp: echo request

There you go. All good. Nothing passes through the gateway unless it matches the rules. The shared secret is the key to this security. This would be more secure if the secret changed occasionally, though.

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