RSA DATA SECURITY CONFERENCE, SAN JOSE, CA -- Breaking the previous record of 56 hours, Distributed.Net, a worldwide coalition of computer enthusiasts, worked with the Electronic Frontier Foundation's (EFF) "DES Cracker," a specially designed supercomputer, and a worldwide network of nearly 100,000 PCs on the Internet, to win RSA Data Security's DES Challenge III in a record-breaking 22 hours and 15 minutes. The worldwide computing team deciphered a secret message encrypted with the United States government's Data Encryption Standard (DES) algorithm using commonly available technology. From the floor of the RSA Data Security Conference & Expo, a major data security and cryptography conference being held in San Jose, Calif., EFF's DES Cracker and the Distributed.Net computers were testing 245 billion keys per second when the key was found.
First adopted by the federal government in 1977, the 56-bit DES algorithm is still widely used by financial services and other industries worldwide to protect sensitive on-line applications, despite growing concerns about its vulnerability. RSA has been sponsoring a series of DES-cracking contests to highlight the need for encryption stronger than the current 56-bit standard widely used to secure both U.S. and international commerce.
"As today's demonstration shows, we are quickly reaching the time when anyone with a standard desktop PC can potentially pose a real threat to systems relying on such vulnerable security," said Jim Bidzos, president of RSA Data Security, Inc. "It has been widely known that 56-bit keys, such as those offered by the government's DES standard, offer only marginal protection against a committed adversary. We congratulate Distributed.Net and the EFF for their achievement in breaking DES in record-breaking time."
As part of the contest, RSA awarded a $10,000 prize to the winners at a special ceremony held during the RSA Conference. The goal of this DES Challenge contest was not only to recover the secret key used to DES-encrypt a plain-text message, but to do so faster than previous winners in the series. As before, a cash prize was awarded for the first correct entry received. The amount of the prize was based on how quickly the key was recovered.
"The diversity, volume and growth in participation that we have seen at Distributed.Net not only demonstrates the incredible power of distributed computing as a tool, but also underlines the fact that concern over cryptography controls is widespread," said David McNett, co-founder of Distributed.Net.
"EFF believes strongly in providing the public and industry with reliable and honest evaluations of the security offered by DES. We hope the result of today's DES Cracker demonstration delivers a wake-up call to those who still believe DES offers adequate security," said John Gilmore, EFF co-founder and project leader. "The government's current encryption policies favoring DES risk the security of the national and world infrastructure."
The Electronic Frontier Foundation began its investigation into DES cracking in 1997 to determine just how easily and cheaply a hardware-based DES Cracker (i.e., a code-breaking machine to crack the DES code) could be constructed.
Less than one year later and for well under U.S. $250,000, the EFF, using its DES Cracker, entered and won the RSA DES Challenge II-2 competition in less than 3 days, proving that DES is not very secure and that such a machine is inexpensive to design and build.
"Our combined worldwide team searched more than 240 billion keys every second for nearly 23 hours before we found the right 56-bit key to decrypt theanswer to the RSA Challenge [III], which was 'See you in Rome (second AES Conference, March 22-23, 1999),'" said Gilmore. The reason this message was chosen is that the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) initiative proposes replacing DES using encryption keys of at least 128 bits.
RSA's original DES Challenge was launched in January 1997 with the aim of demonstrating that DES offers only marginal protection against a committed adversary. This was confirmed when a team led by Rocke Verser of Loveland, Colorado recovered the secret key in 96 days, winning DES Challenge I. Since that time, improved technology has made much faster exhaustive search efforts possible. In February 1998, Distributed.Net won RSA's DES Challenge II-1 with a 41-day effort, and in July, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) won RSA's DES Challenge II-2 when it cracked the DES message in 56 hours.
EFF has prepared a background document on the EFF DES Cracker, which includes the foreword by Whitfield Diffie to "Cracking DES." See http://www.eff.org/DEScracker/. The book can be ordered for worldwide delivery from O'Reilly & Associates at http://www.ora.com/catalog/crackdes, +1 800 998 9938, or +1 707 829 0515.
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 http://www.eff.org.
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