Book: Brute Force: Cracking the Data Encryption Standard

, 2007-04-16

I just finished the book Brute

Force: Cracking the Data Encryption Standard by Matt Curtin. It covers the work of the DESCHALL project, the first ones to crack a message encrypted with the Data Encryption Standard (link goes to .PDF Format of FIPS 46-3). This was in response to a contest challenge by RSA Data Security (now owned by EMC). The first person to crack the DES encrypted message would win a cool US$10,000. What followed were several groups using distributed computing to divy up the possible keys and then brute force until a key was found. The DESCHALL group got it first. I remember the DES message being cracked in 1997 and this book piqued my interest.

The book is an interesting look at how a loosely organization coalition of folks all focused on the same goal can accomplish a significant achievement. It's also a great demonstration of how powerful distributed computing is, even on desktop machines. From a raw computing power perspective, some problems are easier to solve in a distributed architecture than on a supercomputer. Cracking the DES-encrypted message was just such a problem. This is why projects like SETI @ Home offer us hope to accomplish things that otherwise might be impossible in today's age.

The book is light on the technical side. For instance, Mr. Curtin points out that the DESCHALL clients used UDP, which was a far more efficient protocol for what they are trying to do than TCP. But rather than delve into the minutiae and spewing techno-speak, he gave a high level explanation as to what made UDP better than TCP for their implementation at a level where non-technical folks can go, "Okay, that makes sense," without technical folks going, "You oversimplified it to where it's wrong!" Therefore, this is a book that's accessible to non-techies as well. If you are interested in encryption, especially with all the goings-on in the late 90s (remember low and high encryption versions of IE and Netscape?), this book is a good one for that.

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