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04-17-1998

Clarkson Races Against Time To Break The Code In The RSA Secret Key Challenge

Potsdam, N.Y.-- In the new film "Mercury Rising," a top-secret government code thought to be uncrackable is proven otherwise by a nine-year-old boy. That scenario, of course, is fiction. But the threat, if you ask the government or any business, is all too real.

As determined as crackers are to wreak havoc in cyberspace, a group of Clarkson University students is just as determined to counter their moves. Clarkson's Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) is participating in the RSA Secret Key Challenge sponsored by RSA Data Security. The purpose of the challenge is to show people that their systems are very vulnerable to crackers, while gaining valuable information on how to prevent crackers from making their way into the system.

There are two different sections within the RSA Secret Key Challenge: the DES Challenge and the RC5 Algorithm Challenge. The challenge consists of 13 messages all of which use ciphered text. One is produced by Data Encryption Standard (DES)-encrypting and the other 12 produced by RC5 encrypting. Both sections challenge the students to decipher a hidden phrase. The mystery phrase is unknown to all but a few employees of RSA since the secret key used for the encryption is generated at random and destroyed within the data generating software almost immediately after.

The goal of the DES challenge is to uncover the randomly generated key in a faster time than that required for earlier challenges in a series. For the RC5 series, time is not an issue since there is only a slim chance that each RC5 challenge will go faster than the previous one.

Clarkson's ACM is presently working with a group called distributed.net on the RC5 Algorithm section of the challenge. This allows them to obtain more power and servers, as well as keep track of their statistics. The ACM has between 70 and 80 computers running the decoding program on their computers. This is low compared with other groups, but Clarkson's ACM is still doing exceptionally well. They are currently in the top four percent of all teams participating in the challenge from around the world, and are rapidly moving up in the standings.

RSA launched the original DES Challenge to prove that the 56- bit security, such as that offered by the government's Data Encryption Standard (DES), offers inadequate protection against crackers. This is being confirmed as the secret keys are recovered and the code is broken during each challenge, proving once again that almost nothing is safe out there in cyberspace.

[News directors and editors: For more information, contact Michael P. Griffin, director of News & Digital Content Services, at 315-268-6716 or mgriffin@clarkson.edu.]

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