IEEE 802.11 Task Group i had two objectives: to create a new scalable security solution and, of course, to provide effective protection against all known passive and active attacks. It was assumed that the new solution would completely replace WEP over time. Therefore, the solution developers started from scratch. The first and most important change in approach was the separation of the user authentication process and message protection (integrity and privacy). Authentication is the process by which you prove that you are eligible to join a network (and that the network is legitimate); and message protection ensures that once you have joined the network, you can communicate without risk of interception, modification, or any of a host of other security risks. Separation of user authentication and message protection allows a solution that can be scaled from small systems to entire corporations. However, the two parts must be linked together into a security context.
The concept of a security context is important to grasp and lies at the heart of the RSN. However, the idea of a security context is by no means unique to data communications. One simple example of a security context is your travel passport. The main purpose of a passport is for government officials to check who is entering and leaving the country. Countries want to allow their own citizens to come and go, hopefully freely. To do this, they need to provide their citizens with tangible evidence that they are, in fact, citizens.
When you first apply for a passport, you are required by your country's government to provide proof of your identity. This is at the heart of the passport system. In the context of people, it's not obvious how to go about this proof of identity. To some extent possession of special documents such as birth certificates and so on might help, but these are easily forged or stolen. Many countries rely on the evidence of other people to confirm who you are. For example, in Britain you are required to get a signed statement by a nonrelative of "suitable stature." The list of qualifications for "suitable stature" is rather strange, but generally a minister of religion or a police officer would be an example. This person must have known you for a few years and sign the form to say so. The person's role is as a sort of certification authority trusted by you and the government.
So far so good you have been authenticated, you sent in the forms, and the government has filed your picture in a large dusty vault and agrees that you exist. Now it is necessary that you have some token to prove that fact and, more importantly, that you are the person that was originally authenticated. This is the passport document. Most countries validate the passport by embedding the authenticated photograph. Some include fingerprints or descriptions of obvious features such as "no nose" or similar. Passports also have a limited duration, after which they are no longer valid.
When the government accepts your form, it establishes a security context. The passport proves that the context exists and that it refers only to you. Of course, this proof of context is extremely weak. It is relatively easy to fool the authentication process or modify the passport document. In particular, you can take over someone else's context by changing the picture in the passport. There are a lot of implicit trust relationships here. The immigration officer trusts the passport office not to issue fake passports, and the government agency trusts the immigration officer to perform a real check. This brings out the point that in authentication, you often have to trust other parties.
An RSN's security context has to be far stronger than that of a passport. However, the general concept is the same an authentication process followed by a limited-life security context giving rights to the participants. A lot of the architecture of RSN relates to how to establish and maintain a security context between wireless LAN devices (usually a mobile device and an access point). The backbone of this context is the secret key.