You know the drill: use a long and varied password, don’t use the same password twice, use a different password for every site. Is using a short password really that dangerous?
Today’s Question & Answer session comes to us courtesy of SuperUser—a subdivision of Stack Exchange, a community-driven grouping of Q&A web sites.

The Question

SuperUser reader user31073 is curious whether he should really heed those short-password warnings:

Using systems like TrueCrypt, when I have to define a new password I am often informed that using a short password is insecure and “very easy” to break by brute-force.

I always use passwords of 8 characters in length, which are not based on dictionary words, which consists of characters from the set A-Z, a-z, 0-9

I.e. I use password like sDvE98f1

How easy is it to crack such a password by brute-force? I.e. how fast.

I know it heavily depends on the hardware but maybe someone could give me an estimate how long it would take to do this on a dual core with 2GHZ or whatever to have a frame of reference for the hardware.

To brute-force attack such a password one needs not only to cycle through all combinations but also try to decrypt with each guessed password which also needs some time.

Also, is there some software to brute-force hack TrueCrypt because I want to try to brute-force crack my own password to see how long it takes if it is really that “very easy”.

Are short random-character passwords really at risk?

The Answer

SuperUser contributor Josh K. highlights what the attacker would need:

If the attacker can gain access to the password hash it is often very easy to brute force since it simply entails hashing passwords until the hashes match.

The hash “strength” is dependent on how the password is stored. A MD5 hash might take less time to generate then a SHA-512 hash.

Windows used to (and may still, I don’t know) store passwords in a LM hash format, which uppercased the password and split it into two 7 character chunks which were then hashed. If you had a 15 character password it wouldn’t matter because it only stored the first 14 characters, and it was easy to brute force because you weren’t brute forcing a 14 character password, you were brute forcing two 7 character passwords.

If you feel the need, download a program such as John The Ripper or Cain & Abel (links withheld) and test it.

I recall being able to generate 200,000 hashes a second for an LM hash. Depending on how Truecrypt stores the hash, and if it can be retrieved from a locked volume, it could take more or less time.

Brute force attacks are often used when the attacker has a large number of hashes to go through. After running through a common dictionary they will often start weeding passwords out with common brute force attacks. Numbered passwords up to ten, extended alpha and numeric, alphanumeric and common symbols, alphanumeric and extended symbols. Depending on the goal of the attack it can lead with varying success rates. Attempting to compromise the security of one account in particular is often not the goal.

Another contributor, Phoshi expands on the idea:

Brute-Force is not a viable attack, pretty much ever. If the attacker knows nothing about your password, he isn’t getting it through brute-force this side of 2020. This may change in the future, as hardware advances (For example, one could use all however-many-it-has-now cores on an i7, massively speeding up the process (Still talking years, though))

If you want to be -super- secure, stick an extended-ascii symbol in there (Hold alt, use the numpad to type in a number larger than 255). Doing that pretty much assures that a plain brute-force is useless.

You should be concerned about potential flaws in truecrypt’s encryption algorithm, which could make finding a password much easier, and of course, the most complex password in the world is useless if the machine you’re using it on is compromised.

We would annotate Phoshi’s answer to read “Brute-force is not a viable attack, when using sophisticated current generation encryption, pretty much ever”.

As we highlighted in our recent article, Brute-Force Attacks Explained: How All Encryption is Vulnerable, encryption schemes age and hardware power increase so it’s only a matter of time before what used to be a hard target (like Microsoft’s NTLM password encryption algorithm) is defeatable in a matter of hours.

Have something to add to the explanation? Sound off in the the comments. Want to read more answers from other tech-savvy Stack Exchange users? Check out the full discussion thread here.

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Jason Fitzpatrick is the Senior Smart Home Editor at How-To Geek. He has over a decade of experience in publishing and has authored thousands of articles at How-To Geek, Review Geek, LifeSavvy, and Lifehacker. Jason served as Lifehacker's Weekend Editor before he joined How-To Geek.
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