Password cracking has returned to the news, with a thorough Ars Technica article on the increasing potency of cracking tools and the third Crack Me If You Can contest at this year’s DEFCON. Taking a critical view, I’ll argue that it’s not clear exactly how much password cracking is improving and that the cracking community could do a much better job of measuring progress.
Password cracking can be evaluated on two nearly independent axes: power (the ability to check a large number of guesses quickly and cheaply using optimized software, GPUs, FPGAs, and so on) and efficiency (the ability to generate large lists of candidate passwords accurately ranked by real-world likelihood using sophisticated models). It’s relatively simple to measure cracking power in units of hashes evaluated per second or hashes per second per unit cost. There are details to account for, like the complexity of the hash being evaluated, but this problem is generally similar to cryptographic brute force against unknown (random) keys and power is generally increasing exponentially in tune with Moore’s law. The move to hardware-based cracking has enabled well-documented orders-of-magnitude speedups.
Cracking efficiency, by contrast, is rarely measured well. Useful data points, some of which I curated in my PhD thesis, consist of the number of guesses made against a given set of password hashes and the proportion of hashes which were cracked as a result. Ideally many such points should be reported, allowing us to plot a curve showing the marginal returns as additional guessing effort is expended. Unfortunately results are often stated in terms of the total number of hashes cracked (here are some examples). Sometimes the runtime of a cracking tool is reported, which is an improvement but conflates efficiency with power. Continue reading Password cracking, part I: how much has cracking improved?