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  Computers > Computer technologies > Security > Cryptography
Lankomumo reitingas Print version Print version
Cryptanalysis and Attacks on Cryptosystems

Cryptanalysis is the art of deciphering encrypted communications without knowing the proper keys. There are many cryptanalytic techniques. Some of the more important ones for a system implementor are described below.

  • Ciphertext-only attack: This is the situation where the attacker does not know anything about the contents of the message, and must work from ciphertext only. In practice it is quite often possible to make guesses about the plaintext, as many types of messages have fixed format headers. Even ordinary letters and documents begin in a very predictable way. For example, many classical attacks use frequency analysis of the ciphertext, however, this does not work well against modern ciphers.

    Modern cryptosystems are not weak against ciphertext-only attacks, although sometimes they are considered with the added assumption that the message contains some statistical bias. 
  • Known-plaintext attack: The attacker knows or can guess the plaintext for some parts of the ciphertext. The task is to decrypt the rest of the ciphertext blocks using this information. This may be done by determining the key used to encrypt the data, or via some shortcut.

    One of the best known modern known-plaintext attacks is linear cryptanalysis against block ciphers. 

  • Chosen-plaintext attack: The attacker is able to have any text he likes encrypted with the unknown key. The task is to determine the key used for encryption.

    A good example of this attack is the differential cryptanalysis which can be applied against block ciphers (and in some cases also against hash functions).

    Some cryptosystems, particularly RSA, are vulnerable to chosen-plaintext attacks. When such algorithms are used, care must be taken to design the application (or protocol) so that an attacker can never have chosen plaintext encrypted. 

  • Man-in-the-middle attack: This attack is relevant for cryptographic communication and key exchange protocols. The idea is that when two parties, A and B, are exchanging keys for secure communication (for example, using Diffie-Hellman), an adversary positions himself between A and B on the communication line. The adversary then intercepts the signals that A and B send to each other, and performs a key exchange with A and B separately. A and B will end up using a different key, each of which is known to the adversary. The adversary can then decrypt any communication from A with the key he shares with A, and then resends the communication to B by encrypting it again with the key he shares with B. Both A and B will think that they are communicating securely, but in fact the adversary is hearing everything.

    The usual way to prevent the man-in-the-middle attack is to use a public-key cryptosystem capable of providing digital signatures. For set up, the parties must know each other's public keys in advance. After the shared secret has been generated, the parties send digital signatures of it to each other. The man-in-the-middle fails in his attack, because he is unable to forge these signatures without the knowledge of the private keys used for signing.

    This solution is sufficient if there also exists a way to securely distribute public keys. One such way is a certification hierarchy such as X.509. It is used for example in IPSec. 
  • Correlation between the secret key and the output of the cryptosystem is the main source of information to the cryptanalyst. In the easiest case, the information about the secret key is directly leaked by the cryptosystem. More complicated cases require studying the correlation (basically, any relation that would not be expected on the basis of chance alone) between the observed (or measured) information about the cryptosystem and the guessed key information.

    For example, in linear (resp. differential) attacks against block ciphers the cryptanalyst studies the known (resp. chosen) plaintext and the observed ciphertext. Guessing some of the key bits of the cryptosystem the analyst determines by correlation between the plaintext and the ciphertext whether she guessed correctly. This can be repeated, and has many variations.

    The differential cryptanalysis introduced by Eli Biham and Adi Shamir in late 1980s was the first attack that fully utilized this idea against block ciphers (especially against DES). Later Mitsuru Matsui came up with linear cryptanalysis which was even more effective against DES. More recently, new attacks using similar ideas have been developed.

    Perhaps the best introduction to this material is the proceedings of EUROCRYPT and CRYPTO throughout the 1990s. There one can find Mitsuru Matsui's discussion of linear cryptanalysis of DES, and the ideas of truncated differentials by Lars Knudsen (for example, IDEA cryptanalysis). The book by Eli Biham and Adi Shamir about the differential cryptanalysis of DES is the "classical" work on this subject.

    The correlation idea is fundamental to cryptography and several researchers have tried to construct cryptosystems which are provably secure against such attacks. For example, Knudsen and Nyberg have studied provable security against differential cryptanalysis. 

  • Attack against or using the underlying hardware: in the last few years as more and more small mobile crypto devices have come into widespread use, a new category of attacks has become relevant which aims directly at the hardware implementation of the cryptosystem.

    The attacks use the data from very fine measurements of the crypto device doing, say, encryption and compute key information from these measurements. The basic ideas are then closely related to those in other correlation attacks. For instance, the attacker guesses some key bits and attempts to verify the correctness of the guess by studying correlation against her measurements.

    Several attacks have been proposed such as using careful timings of the device, fine measurements of the power consumption, and radiation patterns. These measurements can be used to obtain the secret key or other kinds information stored on the device.

    This attack is generally independent of the used cryptographical algorithms and can be applied to any device that is not explicitly protected against it.

    More information about differential power analysis is available at

  • Faults in cryptosystems can lead to cryptanalysis and even the discovery of the secret key. The interest in cryptographical devices lead to the discovery that some algorithms behaved very badly with the introduction of small faults in the internal computation.

    For example, the usual implementation of RSA private-key operations are very suspectible to fault attacks. It has been shown that by causing one bit of error at a suitable point can reveal the factorization of the modulus (i.e. it reveals the private key).

    Similar ideas have been applied to a wide range of algorithms and devices. It is thus necessary that cryptographical devices are designed to be highly resistant against faults (and against malicious introduction of faults by cryptanalysts). 

  • Quantum computing: Peter Shor's paper on polynomial time factoring and discrete logarithm algorithms with quantum computers has caused growing interest in quantum computing. Quantum computing is a recent field of research that uses quantum mechanics to build computers that are, in theory, more powerful than modern serial computers. The power is derived from the inherent parallelism of quantum mechanics. So instead of doing tasks one at a time, as serial machines do, quantum computers can perform them all at once. Thus it is hoped that with quantum computers we can solve problems infeasible with serial machines.

    Shor's results imply that if quantum computers could be implemented effectively then most of public-key cryptography will become history. However, they are much less effective against secret-key cryptography.

    The current state of the art of quantum computing does not appear alarming, as only very small machines have been implemented. The theory of quantum computation gives much promise for better performance than serial computers, however, whether it will be realized in practice is an open question.

    Quantum mechanics is also a source for new ways of data hiding and secure communication with the potential of offering unbreakable security, this is the field of quantum cryptography. Unlike quantum computing, many successful experimental implementations of quantum cryptography have been already achieved. However, quantum cryptography is still some way off from being realized in commercial applications. 
  • DNA cryptography: Leonard Adleman (one of the inventors of RSA) came up with the idea of using DNA as computers. DNA molecules could be viewed as a very large computer capable of parallel execution. This parallel nature could give DNA computers exponential speed-up against modern serial computers.

    There are unfortunately problems with DNA computers, one being that the exponential speed-up requires also exponential growth in the volume of the material needed. Thus in practice DNA computers would have limits on their performance. Also, it is not very easy to build one.

There are many other cryptographic attacks and cryptanalysis techniques. However, these are probably the most important ones for an application designer. Anyone contemplating to design a new cryptosystem should have a much deeper understanding of these issues. Good places to start looking for information are the excellent books Handbook of Applied Cryptography by Menezes, van Oorschot, and Vanstone and Applied Cryptography by Schneier.

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1. Cryptography
2. A Brief History of Cryptography - compiled by Shireen Hebert
3. Cryptography: History
4. Introduction to Cryptosystems
5. Strength of Cryptographic Algorithms
6. Cryptographic Random Number Generators
7. Cryptographic Hash Functions
8. Digital Signatures
9. Basic Cryptographic Algorithms
1. A Brief History of Cryptography - compiled by Shireen Hebert
2. Strength of Cryptographic Algorithms
3. Basic Cryptographic Algorithms
4. Cryptography: History
5. Introduction to Cryptosystems
6. Cryptography
7. Cryptographic Hash Functions
8. Digital Signatures
9. Cryptographic Random Number Generators