Picture a hemisphere, over a mile high and two and a half miles wide, densely packed with hay... and your task is to locate one specific straw. Such was the challenge that the US-based DESCHALL project undertook in 1997. DESCHALL's goal was to search through 72 quadrillion keys to demonstrate the feasibility of a brute force attack on DES, a widely deployed, US government standard, 56-bit key symmetric encryption algorithm. Written by one of DESCHALL's project leaders, Brute Force is the surprisingly captivating account how thousands of volunteers, electronic civil libertarians and programmers organized themselves to successfully defeat DES.
Curtin starts off with the genesis of DES and moves on to document the 140 days of trials, tribulations and ultimate triumph of this massive collective effort. Although the unavoidable search progress metrics become tedious after a while, he manages to keep interest alive with a taut but lively prose, a focus on the human element of the story and his occasional digressions into the political battles over cryptography that raged during the late nineties. Furthermore, the non-technical reader will appreciate the evocative similes with which he illuminates technical terms and processes.
Perhaps most intriguing in Curtin's narrative are not the technical obstacles that had to be overcome, but the human and social aspect of divvying up the workload: Recruiting volunteers, keeping them motivated; and maybe most importantly, identifying dedicated personalities willing to lead from the 'bottom-up'.
Daniel Bilar has held visiting faculty appointments at Oberlin and Colby. He gets excited about teaching students and network security: risk analysis of networks, malicious code analysis and computer forensics. This interest was sparked at the Institute for Security and Technology Studies which conducts counter-terrorism technology research for the Department of Homeland Security. He has degrees from Brown University (BA, Computer Science), Cornell University (MEng, Operations Research and Industrial Engineering) and Dartmouth College (PhD, Engineering Sciences).