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What is a Brute Force Attack?

written by: Matt Isaac•edited by: Bill Bunter•updated: 9/22/2010

Not just a severe lynching anymore...

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    Encryption

    To understand what a brute force attack is, we must first understand the technology that is designed to attack. This technology that I speak of is data encryption. Data Encryption is used to protect code and other information from prying eyes by changing the data based upon keys, which are essentially complicated, lengthy passwords. To obtain access to the data it is necessary to have the key, otherwise the information is rendered useless.

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    Motive

    It is in the interest of some parties, such as hackers, law enforcement, intelligence agencies, etc, to break this encryption and gain access to the data contained within. Brute force attacks is one method used to discover the key needed to unlock the data. It is by far the most rudimentary cracking process, involving trying every combination possible. Imagine forgetting a friend's phone number and starting at 100 - 0000. And since guessing the right number gets exponentially harder every time a new number set is introduced it could take years to do even for the fastest dialer. In the same way computer systems, hardware or software, attempting to crack a key are limited by power, heat and other variables, as described in the laws of thermodynamics, making extremely long keys impractical to crack.

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    Entropy

    However, a lot of attacks are inherently easier as some may have already noticed from the example above. If you really were to forget a phone number you would know based upon certain outside variables such as country, state, county, city, etc, that many choices can be eliminated. Many numbers can be considered either completely impossible or at the very least, very improbable. As you get more exact with your friend's lost number the less random choices you would need to make to guess the correctly. This once daunting number starts to seem a little more tame. Certain outside factors such as pressure and temperature can affect a computer systems ability to choose numbers in a random way. This slight leveling of Einstein's playing field, made possible by the study of entropy, enables brute force attacks to crack keys that seem to be statistically impossible.

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    Breakdown

    Ultimately, using the right encryption combined with the technology available today, brute force attacks are on the loosing team. They are simply unable to tackle the insurmountable mountain of number combinations made available by modern encryption technology. Even advanced hardware designed specifically for the task ultimately will fail when matched with against current encryption methods. So, don't forget your key inside one of these monsters, the lock smith won't be much help.