802.11r, 802.11k, and 802.11w Deployment Guide, Cisco IOS-XE Release 3.3
802.11w Protected Management Frames
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802.11w Protected Management Frames

802.11w Protected Management Frames

Wi-Fi is a broadcast medium that enables any device to eavesdrop and participate either as a legitimate or rogue device. Management frames such as authentication, de-authentication, association, dissociation, beacons, and probes are used by wireless clients to initiate and tear down sessions for network services. Unlike data traffic, which can be encrypted to provide a level of confidentiality, these frames must be heard and understood by all clients and therefore must be transmitted as open or unencrypted. While these frames cannot be encrypted, they must be protected from forgery to protect the wireless medium from attacks. For example, an attacker could spoof management frames from an AP to attack a client associated with the AP.

The 802.11w protocol applies only to a set of robust management frames that are protected by the Protected Management Frames ( PMF) service. These include Disassociation, De-authentication, and Robust Action frames.

Management frames that are considered as robust action and therefore protected are the following:
  • Spectrum Management
  • QoS
  • DLS
  • Block Ack
  • Radio Measurement
  • Fast BSS Transition
  • SA Query
  • Protected Dual of Public Action
  • Vendor-specific Protected
When 802.11w is implemented in the wireless medium, the following occur:
  • Client protection is added by the AP adding cryptographic protection to de-authentication and dissociation frames preventing them from being spoofed in a DOS attack.
  • Infrastructure protection is added by adding a Security Association (SA) tear down protection mechanism consisting of an Association Comeback Time and an SA-Query procedure preventing spoofed association request from disconnecting an already connected client.
802.11w has introduced a new IGTK Key, which is used to protect broadcast/multicast robust management frames:
  • IGTK is a random value assigned by the authenticator STA (WLC) and used to protect MAC management protocol data units (MMPDUs) from that source STA.
When Management Frame Protection is negotiated, the AP encrypts the GTK and IGTK values in the EAPOL-Key frame, which is delivered in Message 3 of 4-way handshake.
Figure 1. IGTK Exchange in 4-way Handshake

  • If the AP later changes the GTK, it sends the new GTK and IGTK to the client using the Group Key Handshake .

802.11w defines a new Broadcast/Multicast Integrity Protocol (BIP) that provides data integrity and replay protection for broadcast/multicast robust management frames after successful establishment of an IGTKSA - It adds a MIC that is calculated using the shared IGTK key.

802.11w Information Elements (IEs)

Figure 2. 802.11w Information Elements

  1. Modifications made in the RSN capabilities field of RSNIE.
    1. Bit 6: Management Frame Protection Required (MFPR)
    2. Bit 7: Management Frame Protection Capable (MFPC)
  2. Two new AKM Suites, 5 and 6 are added for AKM Suite Selectors.
  3. New Cipher Suite with type 6 is added to accommodate BIP.

The WLC adds this modified RSNIE in association and re-association responses and the APs add this modified RSNIE in beacons and probe responses.

The following Wireshark captures shows the RSNIE capabilities and the Group Management Cipher Suite elements.
Figure 3. 802.11w Information Elements

Security Association (SA) Teardown Protection

SA teardown protection is a mechanism to prevent replay attacks from tearing down the session of an existing client. It consists of an Association Comeback Time and an SA-Query procedure preventing spoofed association requests from disconnecting an already connected client.

If a client has a valid security association, and has negotiated 802.11w, the AP shall reject another Association Request with status code 30. This status code stands for "Association request rejected temporarily; Try again later". The AP should not tear down or otherwise modify the state of the existing association until the SA-Query procedure determines that the original SA is invalid and shall include in the Association Response an Association Comeback Time information element, specifying a comeback time when the AP would be ready to accept an association with this client.

The following capture shows the Association Reject message with status code 0x1e (30) and the Association comeback time set to 10 seconds.
Figure 4. Association Reject with Comeback Time

Following this, if the AP is not already engaged in an SA Query with the client, the AP shall issue an SA Query until a matching SA Query response is received or the Association Comeback time expires. An AP may interpret reception of a valid protected frame as an indication of a successfully completed SA Query.

If a SA QUERY response with a matching transaction identifier within the time period, the AP shall allow the association process to be started without starting additional SA Query procedures.

CLI Configuration for Protected Management Frames

security pmf [ association-comeback 
association-comeback-time-in-seconds | mandatory | optional |
saquery saquery-time-interval-milliseconds ] 


Controller(config-wlan)#security pmf saquery-retry-time 200
Configures the PMF parameters with the following options:
  • association-comeback—Configures the 802.11w association. The range is from 1 through 20 seconds.
  • mandatory—Requires clients to negotiate 802.11w MFP protection on a WLAN.
  • optional—Enables 802.11w MFP protection on a WLAN.
  • saquery-retry-time —Time interval identified in milliseconds in the association response to an already associated client before the association can be tried again. This time interval checks if the client is a real client and not a rogue client during the association comeback time. If the client does not respond within this time, the client association is deleted from the controller. The saquery retry time is milliseconds. The range is from 100 to 500 ms. The value must be specified in multiples of 100 milliseconds.
WLAN configuration also contains a new Authenticated Key Management (AKM) type called Protected Management Frames (PMF)
Controller(config-wlan)#security wpa akm pmf ?
  dot1x  Configures 802.1x support
  psk    Configures PSK support


802.11w feature cannot be enabled on WLANs of None, WEP-40, WEP-104, and WPA (AES or TKIP) encryption.


The WLC does not have a GUI configuration for 802.11w.

Monitoring 802.11w

show wlan name wlan-name

Displays the WLAN parameters on the WLAN. The PMF parameters are displayed. Here is an example:

PMF Support                  :Disabled
PMF Association Comeback Timeout   : 1
PMF SA Query Time                  : 200

Configuration Example

wlan 11w-psk 6 11w-psk
 client vlan 49
 security wpa akm psk set-key ascii 0 ciscocisco
 security wpa akm pmf psk
 security pmf association-comeback 10
 security pmf mandatory
 security pmf saquery-retry-time 100
 no shutdown

Troubleshooting Support

The following debug and Trace commands can be used to troubleshooting this feature:
Controller#debug pmf ?   
  all     debug Protected Management Frame all
  events  Protected Management Frame events
  keys    Protected Management Frame keys
Controller#set trace pmf ?
  events  PMF events debugging
  filter  Trace Adapted Flag Filter
  keys    PMF keys debugging
  level   Trace Level