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Original author: 
Dan Goodin

Thanks to the XKCD comic, every password cracking word list in the world probably has correcthorsebatterystaple in it already.

Aurich Lawson

In March, readers followed along as Nate Anderson, Ars deputy editor and a self-admitted newbie to password cracking, downloaded a list of more than 16,000 cryptographically hashed passcodes. Within a few hours, he deciphered almost half of them. The moral of the story: if a reporter with zero training in the ancient art of password cracking can achieve such results, imagine what more seasoned attackers can do.

Imagine no more. We asked three cracking experts to attack the same list Anderson targeted and recount the results in all their color and technical detail Iron Chef style. The results, to say the least, were eye opening because they show how quickly even long passwords with letters, numbers, and symbols can be discovered.

The list contained 16,449 passwords converted into hashes using the MD5 cryptographic hash function. Security-conscious websites never store passwords in plaintext. Instead, they work only with these so-called one-way hashes, which are incapable of being mathematically converted back into the letters, numbers, and symbols originally chosen by the user. In the event of a security breach that exposes the password data, an attacker still must painstakingly guess the plaintext for each hash—for instance, they must guess that "5f4dcc3b5aa765d61d8327deb882cf99" and "7c6a180b36896a0a8c02787eeafb0e4c" are the MD5 hashes for "password" and "password1" respectively. (For more details on password hashing, see the earlier Ars feature "Why passwords have never been weaker—and crackers have never been stronger.")

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Enlarge / A slide from Steube's presentation outlining a more efficient way to crack passwords protected by the SHA1 cryptographic algorithm.

A researcher has devised a method that reduces the time and resources required to crack passwords that are protected by the SHA1 cryptographic algorithm.

The optimization, presented on Tuesday at the Passwords^12 conference in Oslo, Norway, can speed up password cracking by 21 percent. The optimization works by reducing the number of steps required to calculate SHA1 hashes, which are used to cryptographically represent strings of text so passwords aren't stored as plain text. Such one-way hashes—for example 5baa61e4c9b93f3f0682250b6cf8331b7ee68fd8 to represent "password" (minus the quotes) and e38ad214943daad1d64c102faec29de4afe9da3d for "password1"—can't be mathematically unscrambled, so the only way to reverse one is to run plaintext guesses through the same cryptographic function until an identical hash is generated.

Jens Steube—who is better known as Atom, as the pseudonymous developer of the popular Hashcat password-recovery program—figured out a way to remove identical computations that are performed multiple times from the process of generating of SHA1 hashes. By precalculating several steps ahead of time, he's able to skip the redundant steps, shaving 21 percent of the time required to crack large numbers of passwords. Slides from Tuesday's presentation are here.

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An overview of a chosen-prefix collision

Marc Stevens


The Flame espionage malware that infected computers in Iran achieved mathematic breakthroughs that could only have been accomplished by world-class cryptographers, two of the world's foremost cryptography experts said.

"We have confirmed that Flame uses a yet unknown MD5 chosen-prefix collision attack," Marc Stevens and B.M.M. de Weger wrote in an e-mail posted to a cryptography discussion group earlier this week. "The collision attack itself is very interesting from a scientific viewpoint, and there are already some practical implications."

"Collision" attacks, in which two different sources of plaintext generate identical cryptographic hashes, have long been theorized. But it wasn't until late 2008 that a team of researchers made one truly practical. By using a bank of 200 PlayStation 3 consoles to find collisions in the MD5 algorithm—and exploiting weaknesses in the way secure sockets layer certificates were issued—they constructed a rogue certificate authority that was trusted by all major browsers and operating systems. Stevens, from the Centrum Wiskunde & Informatica in Amsterdam, and de Weger, of the Technische Universiteit Eindhoven were two of the driving forces behind the research that made it possible.

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One of the most powerful security tools available to web developers is cryptography—essentially a process by which meaningful information is turned into random noise, unreadable except where specifically intended. A web developer working on an underpowered netbook in his basement now has access to cryptosystems that major governments could only have dreamed of a few decades ago. And ignorance of cryptography is not bliss. You may think your web app’s profile is too low to worry about hackers, but attacks are frequently automated, not targeted, and a compromise of the weakest system can often give access to better-protected systems when people re-use passwords across multiple sites. Learn the three broad categories of cryptosystems that commonly relate to web applications and begin strategizing how to make your site secure.

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