Common Attack Pattern Enumeration and Classification
A Community Resource for Identifying and Understanding Attacks
In this attack, some asset (information, functionality, identity, etc.) is protected by a finite secret value. The attacker attempts to gain access to this asset by using trial-and-error to exhaustively explore all the possible secret values in the hope of finding the secret (or a value that is functionally equivalent) that will unlock the asset. Examples of secrets can include, but are not limited to, passwords, encryption keys, database lookup keys, and initial values to one-way functions.
The key factor in this attack is the attackers' ability to explore the possible secret space rapidly. This, in turn, is a function of the size of the secret space and the computational power the attacker is able to bring to bear on the problem. If the attacker has modest resources and the secret space is large, the challenge facing the attacker is intractable. While the defender cannot control the resources available to an attacker, they can control the size of the secret space. Creating a large secret space involves selecting one's secret from as large a field of equally likely alternative secrets as possible and ensuring that an attacker is unable to reduce the size of this field using available clues or cryptanalysis. Doing this is more difficult than it sounds since elimination of patterns (which, in turn, would provide an attacker clues that would help them reduce the space of potential secrets) is difficult to do using deterministic machines, such as computers. Assuming a finite secret space, a brute force attack will eventually succeed. The defender must rely on making sure that the time and resources necessary to do so will exceed the value of the information. For example, a secret space that will likely take hundreds of years to explore is likely safe from raw-brute force attacks.
Skill or Knowledge Level: Low
The attack simply requires basic scripting ability to automate the exploration of the search space. More sophisticated attackers may be able to use more advanced methods to reduce the search space and increase the speed with which the secret is located.
Ultimately, the speed with which an attacker discovers a secret is directly proportional to the computational resources the attacker has at their disposal. This attack method is resource expensive: having large amounts of computational power do not guarantee timely success, but having only minimal resources makes the problem intractable against all but the weakest secret selection procedures.
Repeated submissions of incorrect secret values may indicate a brute force attack. For example, repeated bad passwords when accessing user accounts or repeated queries to databases using non-existent keys.
Attempts to download files protected by secrets (usually using encryption) may be a precursor to an offline attack to break the file's encryption and read its contents. This is especially significant if the file itself contains other secret values, such as password files.
If the attacker is able to perform the checking offline then there will likely be no indication that an attack is ongoing.
The attack is impossible to detect if the attacker can test for successful discovery of the secret value independently, without needing to consult an external authority.
If an external authority must be consulted, the attacker can attempt to space out their guesses to avoid a large number of failed guesses in a short period of time, but doing so slows the attack to the point of making it unworkable against all but the most trivial secret spaces. As such, if an external authority must be consulted the attacked is unlikely to be able to keep the attack secret.
Select a provably large secret space for selection of the secret. Provably large means that the procedure by which the secret is selected does not have artifacts that significantly reduce the size of the total secret space.
Do not provide the means for an attacker to determine success independently. This forces the attacker to check their guesses against an external authority, which can slow the attack and warn the defender. This mitigation may not be possible if testing material must appear externally, such as with a transmitted cryptotext.
Protect sensitive data, even when the data is encrypted. If an attacker can gain access to encrypted data, they can mount a brute-force attack independently. The defender will not be aware of this attack or be able to do anything about it and at that point it is purely a function of the attackers' available resources as to how long it takes them to learn the secret.
Monitor activity logs for suspicious activity. An attacker that must use an external authority to check their brute-force guesses is easy to detect, but only if that external authority is monitoring activity and detects the abnormally large number of failed guesses.
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