EFF Cracks 56-Bit DES in Three Days

(July 20, 1998)  The EFF announced Friday that it built a computer with off the shelf parts for under $250,000 which cracked a message encoded in 56-bit DES.  The EFF DES Cracker took only two days and eight hours to decode the message in a brute force search of 88 billion keys per second.  In so doing, it disproved claims by the federal government that 56-bit encryption is secure.

The Data Encryption Standard (DES) uses 56-bit keys, meaning a user must employ precisely the right combination of 56 1s and 0s to decode information correctly.  The FBI opposes export of stronger encryption products.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation stated in a press release that "The U.S. government has long pressed industry to limit encryption to DES (and even weaker forms), without revealing how easy it is to crack. Continued adherence to this policy would put critical infrastructures at risk; society should choose a different course."

"Producing a workable policy for encryption has proven a very hard political challenge. We believe that it will only be possible to craft good policies if all the players are honest with one another and the public," said John Gilmore, EFF co-founder and project leader. "When the government won't reveal relevant facts, the private sector must independently conduct the research and publish the results so that we can all see the social trade-offs involved in policy choices."

The pro-encryption group, Americans for Computer Privacy, will begin an advertising campaign this week which will include television spots, print ads and an on-line component. According to the ACP, "The campaign seeks to educate the public and lawmakers on the encryption issue and the need for policies that protect the privacy rights of American citizens and preserve the country's technological edge in this critical high-tech area."

The ACP will participate in a press conference on Wednesday, July 22, at 2:15 p.m., in Room HC-4, U.S. Capitol.  ACP Executive Director Ed Gillespie will be joined by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Rep. Sam Gejdenson (D-CT), Rep. Rick White (R-WA); Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), and other legislators.

The ACP describes itself as "a broad-based coalition, it brings together more than 90 companies and 40 associations representing financial services, manufacturing, telecommunications, high-tech and transportation, as well as law enforcement, civil-liberty, pro-family and taxpayer groups. ACP supports policies that advance the rights of American citizens to encode information without fear of government intrusion, and advocates the lifting of current export restrictions on U.S.-made encryption."

Also, Congress is considering several encryption bills which could remove or lessen encryption export restraints.  Strong encryption bills have widespread bipartisan support in both the House and Senate.

On June 30, House Speaker Newt Gingrich spoke about encryption at a gathering at 3Com headquarters in Santa Clara, California.  He stated that,

"I don't think there should be a compromise.  I think the people who understand the technology and the people who understand national security have to come together to really work out a solution, which is superior to either position.  I'm looking not looking for half security and half commercial process.  I am looking for a genuine synthesis to create a synergistic understanding of what does America have to do in the 21st Century.  And I start with the premise that encryption ultimately will be universal and that people will be able to do it all over the world."

Related Stories

Burns Says Encryption Bill To Be Considered This Session, 6/17/98.
Industry Leaders Meet with Justice Officials, 6/10/98.
Industry Leaders to Meet With Freeh on Encryption, 6/2/98.
Compromise Encryption Bill Introduced in Senate, 5/14/98.
Freeh Warns of Encryption Use, 4/23/98.
Secretary Daley Condemns Encryption Policy, 4/16/98.
Democrats Write Clinton on Encryption, 4/6/98.
Senate Holds Hearing on Encryption, 3/17/98.
ACP Brings Together Strange Bedfellows, 3/16/98.
Americans for Computer Privacy Organizes, 3/4/98.