What is 256-bit Encryption? How long would it take to crack?

It says 256-bit encryption strength is that good?

Most people see the term 256-bit encryption bandied about all the time and if were being honest have absolutely no idea what it means or how strong it is. Once you go beyond the surface-level, it scrambles data and makes it unreadable, encryption is an incredibly complicated subject. Its not a light read. Most of us dont keep a book about modular exponentiation on the end table beside our beds.

Thats why its understandable that there would be some confusion when it comes to encryption strengths, what they mean, whats good, etc. Theres no shortage of questions about encryption specifically 256-bit encryption.

Chief among them: How strong is 256-bit encryption?

So, today were going to talk about just that. Well coverwhat a bit of security even is, well get into the most common form of 256-bitencryption and well talk about just what it would take to crack encryption atthat strength.

Lets hash it out.

When you encrypt something, youre taking the unencrypteddata, called plaintext, and performing an algorithmic function on it to createa piece of encrypted ciphertext. The algorithm youre using is called the key. Withthe exception of public keys in asymmetric encryption, the value of theencryption key needs to be kept a secret. The private key associated with thatpiece of ciphertext is the only practical means of decrypting it.

Now, that all sounds incredibly abstract, so lets use an example. And well leave Bob and Alice out of it, as theyre busy explaining encryption in literally every other example on the internet.

Lets go with Jack and Diane, and lets say that Jack wants to send Diane a message that says, Oh yeah, life goes on.

Jacks going to take his message and hes going to use an algorithmor cipher the encryption key to scramble the message into ciphertext. Nowhell pass it along to Diane, along with the key, which can be used to decryptthe message so that its readable again.

As long as nobody else gets their hands on the key, theciphertext is worthless because it cant be read.

Jack and Diane just demonstrated encryption at its mostbasic form. And while the math used in primitive ciphers was fairly simple owing to the fact it had to be performed by a human the advent of computershas increased the complexity of the math that undergirds modern cryptosystems.But the concepts are still largely the same.

A key, or specific algorithm, is used to encrypt the data,and only another party with knowledge of the associated private key can decryptit.

In this example, rather than a written message that bleakly opines that life continues even after the joy is lost, Jack and Diane are doing the best they can on computers (still holdin on to 16 sorry, these are John Mellencamp jokes that probably make no sense outside of the US). Now the encryption thats about to take place is digital.

Jacks computer will use its key, which is really an extremely complicated algorithm that has been derived from data shared by Jack and Dianes devices, to encrypt the plaintext. Diane uses her matching symmetric key to decrypt and read the data.

In the original example there were actual letters on a physical piece of paper that were turned into something else. But how does a computer encrypt data?

That goes back to the way that computers actually deal in data. Computers store information in binary form. 1s and 0s. Any data input into a computer is encoded so that its readable by the machine. Its that encoded data, in its raw form, that gets encrypted. This is actually part of what goes into the different file types used by SSL/TLS certificates, its partially contingent on what type of encoding scheme youre trying to encrypt.

So Jacks computer encrypts the encoded data and transmitsit to Dianes computer, which uses the associated private key to decrypt and readthe data.

Again, as long as the private key stays, you know private,the encryption remains secure.

Modern encryption has solved the biggest historical obstacle to encryption: key exchange. Historically, the private key had to be physically passed off. Key security was literally a matter of physically storing the key in a safe place. Key compromise not only rendered the encryption moot, it could get you killed.

In the 1970s a trio of cryptographers, Ralph Merkle,Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman, began working on a way to securely sharean encryption key on an unsecure network with an attacker watching. They succeededon a theoretical level, but were unable to come up with an asymmetricencryption function that was practical. They also had no mechanism for authenticating(but thats a totally different conversation). Merkle came up with the initialconcept, but his name is not associated with the key exchange protocol theyinvented despite the protests of its other two creators.

About a year later Ron Rivest, Adi Shamir and Leonard Adleman created an eponymous key exchange method based on Diffie-Hellman key exchange (RSA), one that also included encryption/decryption and authentication functions. This is relevant because it was the birth of a whole new iteration of encryption: asymmetric encryption.

They also gave us the aforementioned Bob and Alice, which to me at least, makes it kind of a wash.

Anyway, understanding the difference between symmetric and asymmetric encryption is key to the rest of this discussion.

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Symmetric encryption is sometimes called private key encryption, because both parties must share a symmetric key that can be used to both encrypt and decrypt data.

Asymmetric encryption on the other hand is sometimes called public key encryption. A better way to think of asymmetric encryption might be to think of it like one-way encryption.

As opposed to both parties sharing a private key, there is a key pair. One party possess a public key that can encrypt, the other possesses a private key that can decrypt.

Asymmetric encryption is used primarily as a mechanism for exchanging symmetric private keys. Theres a reason for this, asymmetric encryption is historically a more expensive function owing to the size of its keys. So public key cryptography is used more as an external wall to help protect the parties as they facilitate a connection, while symmetric encryption is used within the actual connection itself.

In SSL/TLS, asymmetric encryption serves one, extremely important function. It lets the client encrypt the data that will be used by both parties to derive the symmetric session keys theyll use to communicate. You could never use asymmetric encryption to functionally communicate. While the public key can be used to verify a digital signature, it cant outright decrypt anything that the private key encrypts, hence we call asymmetric encryption one way.

But the bigger issue is the key size makes the actual encryption and decryption functions expensive in terms of the CPU resources they gobble up. This is why many larger organizations and enterprises, when deploying SSL/TLS at scale, offload the handshakes: to free up resources on their application servers.

Instead, we use symmetric encryption for the actualcommunication that occurs during an encrypted connection. Symmetric keys aresmaller and less expensive to compute with.

So, when you see someone reference a 2048-bit private key, theyre most likely referring to an RSA private key. Thats an asymmetric key. It needs to be sufficiently resistant to attacks because it carries out such a critical function. Also, because key exchange is the best attack vector for compromising a connection. Its much easier to steal the data used to create the symmetric session key and calculate it yourself than to have to crack the key by brute force after its already in use.

That begs the question: How strong IS 256-bit encryption?If its less robust than a 2048-bit key, is it still sufficient? And weregoing to answer that, but first we need to cover a little more ground for thesake of providing the right context.

Its really important that we discuss bits of security andcomparing encryption strength between algorithms before we actually get intoany practical discussion of how strong 256 bits of security actually is.Because its not a 1:1 comparison.

For instance, a 128-bit AES key, which is half the current recommendedsize, is roughly equivalent to a 3072-bit RSA key in terms of the actualsecurity they provide.

Its also important to understand the difference betweensecurity claim and security level.

This is typically expressed in bits. A bit is a basic unit of information. Its actually a portmanteau of binary digit, which is both incredibly efficient and also not so efficient. Sure, its easier to say bit. But I just spent an entire paragraph explaining that a bit is basically a 1 or a 0 in binary when the original term wouldve accomplished that in two words. So, you decide if its more efficient. Anyway, were not going to spend much more time on binary than we already have, but Ross wrote a great article on it a few months ago that you should check out.

Anyway, security level and security claim are typically expressed in bits. In this context, the bits of security, lets refer to that as (n) refers to the number operations an attacker would hypothetically need to perform to guess the value of the private key. The bigger the key, the harder it is to guess/crack. Remember, this key is in 1s and 0s, so there are two potential values for each bit. The attacker would have to perform 2n operations to crack the key.

That may be a bit too abstract so heres a quick example: Lets say theres a 2-bit key. That means it will have 22 (4) values.

That would be trivially easy for a computer to crack, butwhen you start to get into larger key sizes it becomes prohibitively difficult fora modern computer to correctly guess the value of a private key in any reasonableamount of time.

But before we get to the math, lets double back to securityclaim vs. security level

Typically when you see encryption marketed, youre seeing the Security Claim being advertised. Thats what the security level would be under optimal conditions. Were going to keep this specific to SSL/TLS and PKI, but the percentage of time that the optimal conditions are present is far from 100%. Misconfigurations are commonplace, as is maintaining support for older versions of SSL/TLS and outmoded cipher suites for the sake of interoperability.

In the context of SSL/TLS, when a client arrives at a website a handshake takes place where the two parties determine a mutually agreed upon cipher suite to use. The encryption strength that you actually get is contingent upon the parameters decided on during the handshake, as well as the capabilities of the server and client themselves.

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Sometimes 256-bit encryption only provides a security level of 128 bits. This is particularly common with hashing algorithms, which measure resistance to two different types of attacks:

So, for instance, SHA-256 has collision resistance of 128 bits (n/2) , but PreImage resistance of 256 bits. Obviously, hashing is different from encryption but there are also plenty of similarities that make it worth mentioning.

Again, this varies based on the algorithm youre using, and it varies from asymmetric to symmetric encryption. As we said, these arent 1:1 comparisons. In fact, asymmetric encryption security level isnt really as scientific as it might seem like it should be. Asymmetric encryption is based on mathematical problems that are easy to perform one way (encryption) but exceedingly difficult to reverse (decryption). Due to that, attacks against public key, asymmetric cryptosystems are typically much faster than the brute-force style searches for key space that plague private key, symmetric encryption schemes. So, when youre talking about the security level of public key cryptography, its not a set figure, but a calculation of the implementations computational hardness against the best, most currently well-known attack.

Symmetric encryption strength is a little easier tocalculate owing to the nature of the attacks they have to defend against.

So, lets look at AES or Advanced Encryption Standard, which is commonly used as a bulk cipher with SSL/TLS. Bulk ciphers are the symmetric cryptosystems that actually handle securing the communication that occurs during an encrypted HTTPS connection.

There are historically two flavors: block ciphers and stream ciphers.

Block ciphers break everything they encrypt down into key-sized blocks and encrypts them. Decrypting involves piecing the blocks back together. And if the message is too short or too long, which is the majority of the time, they have to be broken up and/or padded with throwaway data to make them the appropriate length. Padding attacks are one of the most common threats to SSL/TLS.

TLS 1.3 did away with this style of bulk encryption for exactly that reason, now all ciphers must be set to stream mode. Stream ciphers encrypt data in pseudorandom streams of any length, theyre considered easier to deploy and require fewer resources. TLS 1.3 has also done away with some insecure stream ciphers, like RC4, too.

So, long story short, there are really only two suggested bulkciphers nowadays, AES and ChaCha20. Were going to focus on AES right nowbecause ChaCha20 is a different animal.

TLS 1.2 Recommended Ciphers

TLS 1.3 Recommended Ciphers

GCM stands for Galois Counter Mode, which allows AES which is actually a block cipher run in stream mode. CCM is similar, combing a counter mode with a message authentication functions.

As we covered, you can actually safely run AES in GCM or CCM with 128-bit keys and be fine. Youre getting equivalent of 3072-bit RSA in terms of the security level. But we typically suggest going with 256-bit keys so that you maintain maximum computational hardness for the longest period of time.

So, lets look at those 256-bit keys. A 256-bit key can have2256 possible combinations. As we mentioned earlier, a two-bit keywould have four possible combinations (and be easily crackable by a two-bitcrook). Were dealing in exponentiation here though, so each time you raise theexponent, n, you increase the number of possible combinations wildly. 2256is 2 x 2, x 2, x 2 256 times.

As weve covered, the best way to crack an encryption key is brute-forcing, which is basically just trial & error in simple terms. So, if the key length is 256-bit, there would be 2256 possible combinations, and a hacker must try most of the 2256 possible combinations before arriving at the conclusion. It likely wont take all trying all of them to guess the key typically its about 50% but the time it would take to do this would last way beyond any human lifespan.

A 256-bit private key will have 115,792,089,237,316,195,423,570,985,008,687,907,853,269,984,665,640,564,039,457,584,007,913,129,639,936 (thats 78 digits) possible combinations. No Super Computer on the face of this earth can crack that in any reasonable timeframe.

Even if you use Tianhe-2 (MilkyWay-2), the fastest supercomputer in the world, it will take millions of years to crack 256-bit AES encryption.

That figure sky-rockets even more when you try to figure out the time it would take to factor an RSA private key. A 2048-bit RSA key would take 6.4 quadrillion years (6,400,000,000,000,000 years) to calculate, per DigiCert.

Nobody has that kind of time.

Now would actually be a good spot to talk a little bit about quantum encryption and the threat it poses to our modern cryptographic primitives. As weve just covered, computers work in binary. 1s and 0s. And the way bits work on modern computers is that they have to be a known value, theyre either a 1 or a 0. Period. That means that a modern computer can only guess once at a time.

Obviously, that severely limits how quickly it can bruteforce combinations in an effort to crack a private key.

Quantum Computers will have no such limitations. Now, two things, first of all quantum computing is still about 7-10 years from viability, so were still a ways off. Some CAs, like DigiCert, have begun to put post-quantum digital certificates on IoT devices that will have long lifespans to try and preemptively secure them against quantum computing, but other than that were still in the research phase when it comes to quantum-proof encryption.

The issue is that quantum computers dont use bits, they use quantum bits or qubits. A quantum bit can be BOTH a 1 and a 0 thanks to a principle called superposition, which is a little more complicated than were going to get today. Qubits give quantum computers the power to exponentiate their brute force attacks, which effectively cancels out the computational hardness provided by the exponentiation that took place with the cryptographic primitive. A four Qubit computer can effectively be in four different positions (22) at once. Its 2n once again, so a Quantum Computer with n qubits can try 2n combinations simultaneously. Bristlecone, which has 72 qubits, can try 272 (4,722,366,482,869,645,213,696) values at once.

Again, were still a ways from that and the quantum computer would have to figure out how to successfully run Shors algorithm, another topic for another day, so this is still largely theoretical.

Still, suddenly 4.6 quadrillion years doesnt seem like such a long time.

256-bit encryption is fairly standard in 2019, but everymention of 256-bit encryption doesnt refer to the same thing. Sometimes256-bits of encryption only rises to a security level of 128 bits. Sometimeskey size and security level are intrinsically linked while other times one isjust used to approximate the other.

So the answer to how strong is 256 bit encryption isnt one with a clear cut answer. At least not all time the time.

In the context of SSL/TLS though, it most commonly refers toAES encryption, where 256 bits really does mean 256 bits. And, at least for thetime being, that 256-bit encryption is still plenty strong.

By the time an attacker using a modern computer is able tocrack a 256-bit symmetric key, not only will it have been discarded, youllhave likely replaced the SSL/TLS certificate that helped generate it, too.

Long story short, the biggest threat to your encryption and your encryption keys is still mismanagement, the technology behind them is sound.

As always, leave any comments or questions below

This article was originally written by Jay Thakkar in 2017, it has been re-written for 2019 by Patrick Nohe.

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What is 256-bit Encryption? How long would it take to crack?

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