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October 10th, 2008

New Tool For Graphics Cards Threaten Wireless Networks Encryption

Russian firm ElcomSoft has applied GPU acceleration technology to a new password recovery tool that allows PCs or servers running supported NVIDIA video cards to break Wi-Fi encryption up to 100 times faster than by using conventional microprocessors. Recovery times for Wi-Fi keys are increased by a factor between 10 to 15 in the use of Elcomsoft Distributed Password Recovery in combination with a regular laptop featuring NVIDIA GeForce 8800M or 9800M series GPUs. By running the same software on a desktop with two or more NVIDIA GTX 280 boards installed, this figure increases to a factor of 100.

The latest graphics cards have been used to break Wi-Fi encryption far quicker than was previously possible. Some security consultants are already suggesting the development blows Wi-Fi security out of the water and that corporations ought to apply tighter VPN controls, or abandon wireless networks altogether, in response.

The software needs to intercept only a few packets in order to perform a brute force attack, where a huge number of possible passwords are tried in an attempt to stumble upon the correct code. ElcomSoft positions the tool as a means of auditing corporate Wi-Fi networks for inappropriately weak passwords.

The previous generation of wireless encryption, WEP, was vulnerable to brute force attacks for years. The infamous compromise of TJX, which resulted in the compromise of at least 45.7m credit card records, has been traced back to a hack in a weak security retail network with older point of sale terminals running WEP. Elcomsoft now makes WPA and WPA2 encryption open to attack. In fact, the software is specifically designed to support “passport recovery” on Wi-Fi networks running either WPA or the newer WPA2 encryption.

The power of graphics chips, normally used as 3D graphic accelerators for games, can also be applied for a variety of other password-breaking uses beyond uncovering WiFi passwords. Elcomsoft Distributed Password Recovery can also be used to recover Windows startup passwords, crack MD5 hashes, and unlock password-protected documents created by Microsoft Office or PDF files created by Adobe Acrobat. The firm is also marketing its technology to forensic and government agencies, as well as data and password recovery services.

Although government agencies have probably applied similar approaches for some time the programming of FPGA is a tricky process, involving getting to grips with a specialist hardware programming language. Elcomsoft’s approach by contrast relies on off-the-shelf software and readily available components.

Security consultancy Global Secure Systems said that the development means Wi-Fi networks – even those running the latest encryption algorithm – can no longer be considered to be secure. This breakthrough in brute force decryption of Wi-Fi signals by Elcomsoft confirms our observations that firms can no longer rely on standards-based security to protect their data. As a result users using Wi-Fi might have to move on up to a VPN encryption system.

Brute force decryption of the WPA and WPA2 systems using parallel processing has been on the theoretical possibilities horizon for some time but the use of the latest NVidia cards to speedup decryption on a standard PC is worrying. The development could spur a step back from wireless to wired network connection in sensitive installation, such as financial services organizations, particularly concerned about data privacy.

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