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Cracking DES: Secrets of
Encryption Research, Wiretap Politics & Chip Design - How Federal
Agencies Subvert Privacy

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
About the Electronic Frontier Foundation's
"DES Cracker" Machine

Table of Contents


The Electronic Frontier Foundation began its investigation into DES cracking in 1997 to determine just how easily and cheaply a hardware-based DES Cracker could be constructed. EFF set out to design and build a DES Cracker to counter the claim made by U.S. government officials that American industry or foreign governments cannot decrypt information when protected by DES or weaker encryption, or that it would take multimillion-dollar networks or computers months to decrypt one message. Less than one year later and for well under US $250,000, EFF's DES Cracker entered and won the RSA DES Challenge II-2 competition in less than 3 days, proving that DES is not secure and that such a machine is inexpensive to design and build. The following FAQ answers questions about the government's Data Encryption Standard and the EFF DES Cracker.

What are cryptography, encryption and cryptanalysis?

CRYPTOGRAPHY is the science of code writing, and cryptographic research explores and develops theories and methodologies for rendering messages or information unintelligible to others. Up until the early 1970s, cryptography was the almost exclusive concern of governments. During the past 15 years, however, there has been an explosion of academic and private sector interest in the field. The widespread use of computers and electronic data storage and transmission, marked most recently by the privatization and rapid growth of the Internet, has generated strong demand for scientific and technical solutions to ensure the security of information and computer-mediated communications. ENCRYPTION is applied cryptography - the use of cryptographic products or processes, e.g. to protect data or to authenticate a transaction. CRYPTANALYSIS is code-breaking, that is, the "cracking" of an encryption algorithm or system to reveal the hidden data ("plaintext"), either to get at the data for its own sake, or to test the strength of the encryption being used.

What is DES?

The Data Encryption Standard (DES) is a published federal encryption standard created to protect unclassified computer data and communications. DES has been incorporated into numerous industry and international standards since the Secretary of Commerce first approved DES as a Federal Information Processing Standard during the height of the Cold War in the late 1970s. The encryption algorithm specified by DES is a symmetric, secret-key algorithm. Thus it uses one key to encrypt and decrypt messages, on which both the sending and receiving parties must agree before communicating. It uses a 56-bit key, which means that a user must correctly employ 56 binary numbers, or bits, to produce the key to decode information encrypted with DES.

Who uses DES?

Promulgation of DES as a stable and certified technology stimulated supply and demand, and DES is now generally believed to be the most widely used general-purpose cryptosystem in the world. Although the initial selection of the algorithm was controversial since the NSA was involved in its design, DES has gained wide acceptance and has been the basis for several industry standards, mainly because it is a public standard and can be freely evaluated and implemented. DES technology is readily available worldwide, and several international standards have adopted the algorithm. The process by which DES was developed and evaluated also stimulated private sector interest in cryptographic research, ultimately increasing the variety of commercial security technologies. By 1993, 40 manufacturers were producing about 50 implementations of DES in hardware and firmware that the National Institute for Standards (NIST) had validated for federal use. Another estimated 60 companies were producing software implementations of DES. A 1993 industry estimate of U.S. sales of DES hardware and software products was between $75 million and $125 million annually (OTA, 1994). In April 1994, a survey of products using cryptography in the United States and abroad conducted by the Software Publishers Association identified 245 domestic encryption products using DES. Trusted Information Systems reported that DES was found in 281 foreign and 466 domestic encryption products -- between a third and half of the market -- as of December 1997.

What claims have been made about DES?

The U.S. government has increasingly exaggerated both the strength of DES and the time and cost it would take to crack a single DES-encrypted message. For instance, at a June 26, 1997, U.S. House of Representatives' Committee on International Relations hearing on the encryption issue, both the Director of the FBI, Louis Freeh, and the Deputy Director of the NSA, William Crowell, testified that the government does not have the technology or the "brute force" capability to break into encrypted information. In fact, they cite the winners of last year's challenge by RSA Laboratories, who cracked a message encrypted with 56-bit DES in five months using the distributed computing power of the Internet, as evidence of the impracticality of accessing information encoded with DES. In addition, they also asserted that American industry could not decrypt real-time encryption over a very minimal level of robustness. At one point, Freeh turned to Crowell and asked, "If you gave me $3 million to buy a Cray computer, it would take me how many years to do one message bit?" Crowell replied, "64 bits, 7,000 years." (See http://jya.com/hir-hear.htm ). Earlier this year, the Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General Robert S. Litt testified before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on the Constitution, Federalism, and Property that brute force decryption takes too long to be useful to protect the public safety. He went on to say, "decrypting one single message that had been encrypted with a 56-bit key took 14,000 Pentium-level computers over four months; obviously these kinds of resources are not available to the FBI." (See http://www.computerprivacy.org/archive/03171998-4.shtml ).

What is the 'EFF DES Cracker' and how does it work?

A 'DES Cracker' is a machine that can read information encrypted with DES by finding the key that was used to encrypt that data. The easiest known way to build a practical DES Cracker is to have it try every key until it finds the right one. The design of the EFF DES Cracker is simple in concept. It consists of an ordinary personal computer with a large array of custom "Deep-Crack" chips. Software in the personal computer instructs the custom chips to begin searching for the key, and also functions to interface with the user. The software periodically polls the chips to find any potentially interesting keys that they have located. The hardware's job is not to find the answer, but rather to eliminate most incorrect answers. The software can then quickly search the remaining potentially correct keys, winnowing the "false positives" from the real answer. The strength of the machine is that it repeats a search circuit thousands of times, allowing the software to find the answer by searching only a tiny fraction of the key space. With software to coordinate the effort, the problem of searching for a DES key is "highly parallelizable." A single DES-Cracker chip could find a key by searching for many years. A thousand DES-Cracker chips can solve the same problem in one thousandth of the time. A million DES-Cracker chips could theoretically solve the same problem in about a millionth of the time. The actual machine EFF built contains about 1,500 chips.

Who built the EFF DES Cracker?

The Electronic Frontier Foundation organized and funded the project to build the EFF DES Cracker. Paul Kocher of Cryptography Research ( http://www.cryptography.com ) led the architecture and software team, which also included John Gilmore of EFF. The hardware was designed and built by Advanced Wireless Technologies ( http://www.awti.com ), with assistance from Mike Cheponis of California Wireless ( http://www.wireless.com ) and Mitch Bradley and Mark Insley of FirmWorks ( http://www.firmworks.com ). The software uses the very fast DES library "libdes-4.01", created by Eric Young ( http://www.cryptsoft.com/~eay/ ). John Gilmore provided overall project management and edited a book, Cracking DES, published by O'Reilly and Associates. Bruce Schneier ( http://www.counterpane.com ) provided test problems for the machine. Clif Cox provided the remote communications infrastructure. Levi Kruger designed the project's "crumbling stone letters" logo. Lee Tien ( mailto:tien@well.com ) and John Liebman ( http://www.McKennaCuneo.com ) provided legal assistance. Phil Zimmermann of Network Associates provided software for printing and scanning source code. Jean-Jacques Quisquater, Yvo Desmedt, Ian Goldberg, David Wagner, and Michael J. Wiener provided their technical papers on cracking DES for the book. O'Reilly and Associates assisted in organizing, completing, producing, and distributing the book.

Does the EFF DES Cracker really work?

The EFF DES Cracker first solved a challenge posed more than a year ago by world-renowned cryptographer and AT&T Labs research scientist, Matt Blaze. The "Blaze Challenge" was designed to only be solvable by "brute force" cryptanalysis of DES. Mr. Blaze challenged the world to find matching pairs of plaintext and ciphertext numbers, consisting of nothing but repeated digits. Blaze himself was unaware of any such pairs until the EFF DES Cracker revealed the first known pair. It found that a hexadecimal key of 0E 32 92 32 EA 6D 0D 73 turns a plaintext of 8787878787878787 into the ciphertext 0000000000000000.

The DES Cracker's second problem was to win the DES-cracking speed competition posed by RSA Laboratories ( http://www.rsa.com/rsalabs/ ). Two previous RSA challenges proved that massive collections of computers coordinated over the Internet could successfully crack DES. The DES Cracker faced tough competition from the massively parallel software effort of www.distributed.net. This combined effort is, in effect, "the fastest computer in the world," and it won the previous RSA contest in January 1998.

Starting at 9:00 AM PST, Monday, July 13, 1998, the EFF DES Cracker began searching for the right key. The machine found the answer at 5:03 PM Pacific PST, Wednesday, July 15. Coincidentally, it took the EFF DES Cracker 56 hours to find a 56-bit key. When the EFF team started the search on Monday morning, they had 35868 search units running on 26 boards (each search unit examines 2.5 million keys per second). The team stopped the search for a few minutes on Tuesday night to improve the software and then again for a few minutes on Wednesday to add a 27th board, which sped up the machine slightly (to 37050 search units). The EFF DES Cracker searched 17,902,806,669,197,312 keys to find the correct answer, which averages out to a rate of 88,803,604,509 keys tested per second (88 billion). The machine was examining 92,625,000,000 keys per second when it found the answer. The key was found after searching almost exactly a quarter of the key space (24.8%).

The PC that controls the machine originally ran Windows 95, but the EFF team replaced it with Linux so it could be operated remotely over the Internet. The EFF DES Cracker's control software runs on either Win95 or Linux. The team has run it on a Linux laptop as well, using a PCMCIA interface card to attach it to the EFF DES Cracker chassis.

How much did the EFF DES Cracker cost to build?

The whole project was budgeted at about US $210,000. Of this, $80,000 was used to design, integrate, and test the EFF DES Cracker. The other $130,000 was for materials including chips, boards and all other components on the boards, card cages, power supplies, cooling, and a PC. The software for controlling the EFF DES Cracker was written separately as a volunteer project that took 4-5 weeks. The entire project was completed within about eighteen months, with much of that time being used for preliminary research. The core team contained fewer than ten people, none of whom worked full-time on the project. The final cost came in at well under $250,000.

Why was the EFF DES Cracker built?

EFF designed and built the EFF DES Cracker to counter the claim made by U.S. Government officials that American industry or governments cannot decrypt information when protected by DES or weaker encryption, or that it would take multi-million dollar networks of computers months to decrypt one message. EFF's machine is not classified and EFF has donated the design to the public domain, thereby ensuring that there is no doubt about whether the machine actually exists or can be built by anyone. Press releases and technical papers alone are clearly insufficient. As a theoretical model, the publishing of plans for a million-dollar DES Cracker in renowned Bell-Northern Research cryptographer Michael Wiener's 1993 paper, "Efficient DES Key Search," did not propel this issue into the public debate over encryption. People still deploy DES, and Congressmen blindly accept assurances about its strength.

EFF hopes that this machine will stimulate interest in how such a machine works and how one can be built for only about $200,000. EFF's book, Cracking DES, contains the complete specifications and design documents for the DES Cracker, as well as circuit diagrams for its board, and full listings of its software and its gate array design. The publication of EFF's design should enable other teams to rapidly reproduce, validate, and/or improve on its design.

What should those who depend on DES do now that we are clear on its insecurity?

EFF suggests that users and developers of cryptography should not design anything else that depends on single DES. Furthermore, these parties should remove systems that use permanently fixed single-DES keys from service, or superencrypt the traffic at a higher level. Finally, users and developers should begin to change software and/or hardware over to a stronger algorithm than DES. Three-key Triple-DES is an obvious choice, since it uses the same block size and can possibly use the same hardware; it just uses three keys and runs DES three times (encrypting each block with the first key, decrypting it with the second, then encrypting it with the third). The strength of Triple-DES is not known with any certainty, but it is certainly no weaker than single DES, and is likely to be substantially stronger.

How long should cipher keys be to avoid these attacks?

According to 1996 study by cryptographay experts, "Minimal Key Lengths for Symmetric Ciphers to Provide Adequate Commercial Security" ( ftp://research.att.com/dist/mab/keylength.txt ), secret-key ciphers used to protect data over the next 20 years should have an effective key length of at least 90 bits. (Public key ciphers, such as RSA and Diffie-Hellman, need longer keys).

How long does the EFF DES Cracker take to crack DES?

It was designed to crack DES in an average of 4.5 days. However, fabrication defects in the first round of chips make it up to three times as slow on some problems. These problems are unique to the physical chips we used and would not affect future machines. Faster machines can easily be built by spending more money, with roughly linear speedups (twice the money = twice the speed).

How does this affect cryptographic algorithms other than DES?

Few of them are directly affected. The same or similar design techniques can be used to attack other popular algorithms, such as A5 (used in GSM cellphones), RC2, and RC4. Algorithms with long keys, say 90 bits or more, are unaffected by the existence of DES Crackers, at least in the medium term. (RC2 and RC4 have variable-size keys; if in a particular product, too-small keys were used, those products are vulnerable.) The security of 128-bit IDEA, used in PGP, and of 168-bit Triple-DES, a popular DES replacement, is unaffected because the number of keys to be tried in them is too huge. Few other cryptographic algorithms have been as well-studied as DES, so there is a higher risk of undiscovered flaws in other common algorithms, but in many cases that risk is low enough to allow other algorithms to be used.

What standards are replacing DES?

Many DES users realized years ago that it was nearing the end of its useful life. Financial standards committee X9F1 has been working on a Triple-DES standard for financial use. Internet Engineering Task Force standards specify the use of Triple-DES, RC2, and RC4 as well as DES. NIST has started the process of developing an "Advanced Encryption Standard" or AES, which is designed to last for a decade or more after its adoption. It will be years from now before the AES is ready for public use.

How does this relate to the movie "Sneakers?"

The EFF DES Cracker is much larger and more cumbersome to use than the decoding device shown in the movie. But the idea is similar; it allows you to feed in ciphertext and get out the key that unlocks the plaintext.

Is the EFF DES Cracker practical or a laboratory curiosity?

The EFF DES Cracker has already run test problems, crafted by Bruce Schneier, which enabled it to find the key for DES-encoded Microsoft Excel, Eudora, and MS-Word files, without knowing anything about the files except what program had created them. It can be used directly to recover lost DES keys from stored files or encrypted communications sessions. We also expect to allow United States cryptographers to use the machine over the Internet in their research. The arbitrary way that the U.S. Commerce Department administers U.S. export controls may prevent us from granting non-US researchers access to the machine, though they are free to build their own from the design information we have printed in the Cracking DES book.

What has been the impact of export controls on cryptography?

Due to deep-seated Cold War fears, encryption is highly regulated by the U.S. Departments of State and Commerce, which refuse to license any secure encryption product for export unless it utilizes key recovery, a law enforcement code word for the ability to easily decrypt information by third-parties not originally intended to receive the message. The results have been debilitating for the software industry and networked communications. Since computer networks like the Internet are international in scope, strong encryption cannot be widely deployed in new software products to secure passwords and privatize messages, leaving them virtually unprotected from those who would gain unauthorized access or make unauthorized copies. Export controls have also greatly hampered groundbreaking work in the field of cryptography, preventing myriad academic cryptographers, computer scientists, mathematicians, and electrical engineers in this country and abroad, from developing the security that an ever-more global information infrastructure urgently demands. When undue regulation burdens and even prevents worldwide discourse concerning cryptography, new encryption methods cannot be tested adequately, workable international encryption standards cannot be developed, and cryptographers -- unable to publish or obtain essential peer review without fear of prosecution -- cannot be persuaded to enter the field of cryptography at all.

Have other groups studied the implications of controls over the research and application of cryptography?

Over the past 15 years, many groups both inside and outside the government have conducted studies on the implications of export controls on cryptography. Although all but one of these studies has recommended loosening these restrictions, little has changed since the Cold War era. In 1981, the Public Cryptography Study Group, formed by the American Council on Education (ACE) under a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), issued a report recommending that the National Security Agency conduct, on a trial basis, voluntary, prepublication review of manuscripts on cryptography. The report met with fierce opposition by the scientific community because members of the group accepted the government's national security claims as valid in lieu of receiving the necessary security clearances to validate such claims independently. The Office of Technology Assessment conducted a study in 1994 to flesh out the spectrum of policy issues and legislative options for Congress. OTA reported that "an important outcome...would be the development of more open processes to determine how cryptography will be deployed throughout society." The Association for Computing Machinery also published a report in 1994 that concluded "all who have thought seriously about the issues of communications security -- from civil libertarians to law enforcement officials to the computer industry and national security experts -- agree that strong cryptography is necessary for protecting confidentiality, integrity, and authenticity of the information infrastructure." The National Research Council (NRC) conducted a study in 1996, which determined that "the overall interests of the government and the nation would best be served by a policy that fosters a judicious transition toward the broad use of cryptography." Unlike the earlier ACE study, members of NRC study group received security clearances to review the government's claims and still opted for a change in the government's approach to cryptography policy. Most recently, an ad hoc group of cryptographers and computer scientists reviewed the technical feasibility of government proposals for cryptographic systems that would allow government officials access to messages linked with ongoing criminal investigations. They concluded in two seperate reports that the deployment of encryption technologies with backdoors for covert surveillance "will result in substantial sacrifices in security and greatly increased costs to the end user."

What is the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF)?

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is one of the leading civil liberties organizations devoted to ensuring that the Internet remains the world's first truly global vehicle for free speech, and that the privacy and security of all on-line communication is preserved. Founded in 1990 as a nonprofit, public interest organization, EFF is based in San Francisco, California. EFF maintains an extensive archive of information on encryption policy, privacy, and free speech at its award-winning Web site ( http://www.eff.org ).


Cracking DES, John Gilmore, Editor, The Electronic Frontier Foundation (San Francisco, CA: O'Reilly and Associates, 1998); see:

Information Security and Privacy in Network Environments, U.S. Office of Technology Assessment, Congress of the United States (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, September 1994).

"'What is DES?' FAQ 3.0 on Cryptography", RSA Laboratories; see:

Last updated on July 16, 1998.

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