56-bit crypto code cracking record smashed

The US Government's Data Encryption Standard (DES) has been cracked in less then three days, blowing away the previous record of 39 days.

RSA Laboratories sponsored the code cracking challenge that was launched on Monday with a prize of $10,000 (£6,134) for the winner. The record-breaking computer was specially built for the challenge by The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) at a cost of $250,000 (£153,374).

EFF, a non-profit organisation, designed and built the DES Cracker to prove that information protected by DES is not safe. Barry Steinhardt, executive director of EFF said: "If a small non-profit organisation can crack DES, your competitors can too. Five years from now some teenager may well build a DES Cracker as her high school science fair project."

DES is currently used in a very wide variety of applications for government, financial, business and online purposes, and is one of the oldest internationally recognised standard encryption algorithms.

However, the US Government standardisation authority, NIST, has said that it may not renew DES's status when it comes up for review at the end of 1998, due to the increasing ease with which attacks are succeeding. Instead, it is currently analysing candidates for a next-generation system called AES, the Advanced Encryption Standard.

Other variants of DES such as Triple-DES -- where the data is encrypted three times -- are still considered reasonably secure.