Can a Hacker Bypass Encryption?
By Milton Kazmeyer
Encryption uses complex mathematical equations to hide information from outsiders, converting documents, messages and files into incomprehensible gibberish. Normally, encrypted files require a key to decipher, but in some cases hackers can bypass encryption schemes to steal privileged information. You can counter many of these techniques by using good security and encryption practices.
The easiest way for a hacker to bypass encryption schemes is simply to steal the key. If a hacker manages to plant a keylogger on your system, he can record your activities, including the generation or use of cryptographic keys. In addition, some forms of malware enable the controller to browse the contents of your hard drive, so if you store cryptographic keys and passwords in plain text, they could be vulnerable. Keeping your operating system, firewall and anti-malware programs up to date can help prevent this type of attack.
To prevent hackers from stealing password databases, most servers use a cryptographic method called hashing. This one-way cryptographic algorithm produces a unique string for each input. The word “password," for instance, would produce a completely different hash than the string “pass-word” or “password1." When you create an account and password, the server stores the hashed version of your password, and then when you login, it hashes your input and compares it to the stored value. If they match, the system knows you entered the correct password and lets you in.
Hackers can find ways around hashed password databases, however. Since the algorithms that convert these passwords are easy to discover, a hacker can hash common words and look for matches in the database. If he hashes “password” and matches that to an account, he knows that account’s password is “password." To prevent these kinds of attacks, use complex passwords that don't appear in the dictionary, and sites can add “salts," or randomly chosen numeric values, to the cryptographic hash function to alter its output.
In some cases, the level of cryptographic security may be insufficient to prevent a brute force attack. A brute force attack requires trying every possible key to break an encryption scheme, and it can take an extremely long time to succeed. To facilitate this kind of attack, hackers can take over other computers, devoting their processing power to the attempt to break through an encryption scheme. Using a longer encryption key can greatly increase the amount of time it will take to break the encryption. Many forms of consumer encryption use 128- or 256-bit keys, but the United States Computer Emergency Response team suggested in 2012 that a move to 2,048-bit keys would be necessary to protect data through the next two decades, due to increases in computing power.
Milton Kazmeyer has worked in the insurance, financial and manufacturing fields and also served as a federal contractor. He began his writing career in 2007 and now works full-time as a writer and transcriptionist. His primary fields of expertise include computers, astronomy, alternative energy sources and the environment.