Automatically Rotating Guest WiFi Passwords With hostapd


I like to have control over who gets on my networks and who doesn't.

To obtain this level of control in my home network, I'm running a separate WiFi for guests, which among other things separates guest devices from my private infrastructure.

Authorization in hostapd

The most simple way of configuring WPA2-PSK authorization in hostapd is a static passphrase:

# /etc/hostapd/hostapd.conf
wpa_passphrase=Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!

So far, so good - but once a person knows this passphrase, they can get on my WiFi all the time, and they could share the passphrase with other people. This way, I lose control over who gets on my networks.

hostapd also supports device-specific passphrases, configured in a separate file:

# /etc/hostapd/hostapd.conf

Now, how should this file look like? The hostapd "documentation" is a bit shady in this regard, and only mentions (PSK,MAC address) pairs; the exact format is not mentioned. However, multiple sources on the internet seem to agree on this format:

# /etc/hostapd/hostapd.wpa_psk
ma:ca:dd:re:ss:00 The Passphrase For Device A
ma:ca:dd:re:ss:01 The Passphrase For Device B

And, most important, some sources also mention that the MAC address 00:00:00:00:00:00 can be used as a wildcard, so the associated passphrase works for all devices. This alone does not give us any advantage over the hardcoded passphrase. However, having the passphrase in a separate file makes automated rotation extremely easy. By doing this, I have a fairly good control over who can access my guest WiFi when the passphrase is rotated frequently through a cronjob.

To take things a step further, we can decouple the passphrases rotation rate from how long a passphrase remains valid. As it turns out, the wildcard MAC address can be used multiple times, and all wildcard passphrases are accepted. This allows us to do the following:

  • Generate a new passphrase once a day
  • Add the new passphrase as a wildcard entry to the wpa_psk file
  • Remove all but the seven newest entries from the file
  • Reload hostapd

So, this gives us a new passphrase every day, and each passphrase remains valid for a week.

Giving the Passphrase to Guests

I'm using qrencode to generate a QR code with the latest passphrase, and display the result, together with its plaintext form, in a Grafana HTML panel:

qrencode \
  -t PNG --size=6 --output=/var/www/html/wifi-guest.png \

cat > /var/www/html/wifi-guest.html <<EOF
  <!-- Timestamp for browser cache circumvention -->
  <img src="/wifi-guest.png?$(date +%s)" />

And the result looks like this:

Screenshot of a Grafana Panel with QR code, WiFi SSID and