German security researcher Thomas Roth has found an innovative use for cloud computing: cracking wireless networks that rely on pre-shared key passphrases, such as those found in homes and smaller businesses.
Roth has created a program that runs on Amazon's Elastic Cloud Computing (EC2) system. It uses the massive computing power of EC2 to run through 400,000 possible passwords per second, a staggering amount, hitherto unheard of outside supercomputing circles -- and very likely made possible because EC2 now allows graphics processing units (GPUs) to be used for computational tasks. Among other things, these are particularly suited to password cracking tasks.
[ InfoWorld's Roger A. Grimes tells security admins: Prepare for tomorrow's tech trend today. | Master your security with InfoWorld's interactive Security iGuide. | Stay up to date on the latest security developments with InfoWorld's Security Central newsletter. ]
In other words, this isn't a clever or elegant hack, and it doesn't rely on a flaw in wireless networking technology. Roth's software merely generates millions of passphrases, encrypts them, and sees if they allow access to the network.
However, employing the theoretically infinite resources of cloud computing to brute force a password is the clever part.
Purchasing the computers to run such a crack would cost tens of thousands of dollars, but Roth claims that a typical wireless password can be guessed by EC2 and his software in about six minutes. He proved this by hacking networks in the area where he lives. The type of EC2 computers used in the attack costs 28 cents per minute, so $1.68 is all it could take to lay open a wireless network.
Roth intends to make his software publicly available, and will soon present his research to the Black Hat conference in Washington, D.C.
Roth's intention is to show that wireless computing that relies on the pre-shared key (WPA-PSK) system for protection is fundamentally insecure. The WPA-PSK system is typically used by home users and smaller businesses, which lack the resources to invest in the more secure but complicated 802.1X authentication server system.
WPA-PSK relies on administrators setting a passphrase of up to 63 characters (or 64 hexadecimal digits). Anybody with the passphrase can gain access to the network. The passphrase can include most ASCII characters, including spaces.