Monday, March 28, 2005


Cracking your 256-bit encryption

Brian Krebs of the Washington Post takes us inside the Secret Service's efforts to decrypt encrypted material. It boils down to two things: The encryptor must use a non-random password to the key and the Secret Service must use a lot of computer power.
"In most cases, there's a greater probability that the sun will burn out before all the computers in the world could factor in all of the information needed to brute force a 256-bit key," said Jon Hansen, vice president of marketing for AccessData Corp, the Lindon, Utah, company that built the software that powers DNA.

Yet, like most security systems, encryption has an Achilles' heel -- the user. That's because some of today's most common encryption applications protect keys using a password supplied by the user. Most encryption programs urge users to pick strong, alphanumeric passwords, but far too often people ignore that critical piece of advice, said Bruce Schneier, an encryption expert and chief technology officer at Counterpane Internet Security Inc. in Mountain View, Calif.

"Most people don't pick a random password even though they should, and that's why projects like this work against a lot of keys," Schneier said. "Lots of people -- even the bad guys -- are really sloppy about choosing good passwords."

But I already knew that. So why do I keep using "cryptographer"?

But what's interesting is that they're using the distributed network techniques made famous in the search for extraterrestrial life, where online users were invited to participate by allowing the project to use their computers.

Unlike other distributed networking programs, such as the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence Project -- which graphically display their number-crunching progress when a host computer's screen saver is activated -- DNA works silently in the background, completely hidden from the user. Lewis said the Secret Service chose not to call attention to the program, concerned that employees might remove it.

"Computer users often experience system lockups that are often inexplicable, and many users will uninstall programs they don't understand," Lewis said. "As the user base becomes more educated with the program and how it functions, we certainly retain the ability to make it more visible."

On the other hand, they retain the ability to extend the program beyond their employee base.

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