Brute Force: Cracking the Data Encryption Standard

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Brute Force: Cracking the Data Encryption Standard

Book and Product Reviews

Brute Force: Cracking the Data Encryption Standard

Matt Curtin

Springer-Verlag ISBN: 0-387-20109-2 280 pages

For roughly twenty years, DES was the standard for encryption. It was felt by cryptographers that this 56-bit system was, in theory, too easy to crack. Of course, there is a difference between theory and practice, and when DES was put into place a supercomputer would have been needed.

With the passage of time, however, computers became more and more powerful, and, with the arrival of the Internet, it became possible to coordinate the distribution of workload where the solution to a problem involves the same program run many times with different data. That is to say, if a solution requires the same program to be run 10,000 times, it can be run 10,000 times on one machine, a thousand times on ten machines, and ten times on a thousand machines.

Brute Force describes the breaking of an unbreakable DES encrypted message by a cooperative effort among many users, on tens of thousands of machines. The book is well-written and interesting, but is useful in a larger sense in at least two other areas.

First, it gives the reader some idea of how encryption works, why it is important, and why strong encryption should be readily available. It also makes clear why encryption algorithms should not be “secret.” And it explains why it is better to have good encryption than to prevent it from being widely available.

Second, it gives the reader some idea of how powerful distributed processing can be. As a non-encryption-related example, we know of an investment bank whose yearly pricing model in the SWAPS and derivatives department took over six months to run. Actually, it was, in fact, habitually interrupted about then, and never ran to completion. By, er, acquiring the user IDs and passwords of every UNIX workstation on the system, the pricing model was made to run over a weekend, allowing it to be run weekly, not yearly, which in turn gave a competitive advantage.

Since encryption is such an important topic these days, this book provides some interesting background, an interesting story, and a lot of good food for thought, even for those not interested in encryption per se.

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