In cryptography, a brute-force attack, or exhaustive key search, is a cryptanalytic attack that can, in theory, be used against any encrypted data (except for data encrypted in an information-theoretically secure manner). Such an attack might be utilized when it is not possible to take advantage of other weaknesses in an encryption system (if any exist) that would make the task easier. It consists of systematically checking all possible keys until the correct key is found. In the worst case, this would involve traversing the entire search space.
The key length used in the cipher determines the practical feasibility of performing a brute-force attack, with longer keys exponentially more difficult to crack than shorter ones. A cipher with a key length of N bits can be broken in a worst-case time proportional to 2N and an average time of half that. Brute-force attacks can be made less effective by obfuscating the data to be encoded, something that makes it more difficult for an attacker to recognize when he/she has cracked the code. One of the measures of the strength of an encryption system is how long it would theoretically take an attacker to mount a successful brute-force attack against it.
Brute-force attacks are an application of brute-force search, the general problem-solving technique of enumerating all candidates and checking each one.
Last Revised: 2015-07-01