What Is a Brute Force Attack?

Definition of Brute Force Attack

A brute force attack is an attack method to break passwords, access data and encryption keys through trial and error. It is a simple and reliable technique for gaining unauthorized access to personal accounts, organizational systems and networks. Hackers will try multiple usernames and passwords, often using the computer to test different combinations until they find the correct login information.

Brute force comes from the attacker’s use of excessive force to gain access to a user’s account. Despite being an old cyber attack technique, brute force attacks have been tried and tested and are still a popular tactic among hackers.

Types of Brute Force Attacks

The most basic brute force attack is the dictionary attack, where the attacker goes through a dictionary of possible passwords and tries them all. Dictionary attacks start with some assumptions about commonly used passwords and attempt to guess passwords from a list in the dictionary. These attacks tend to be somewhat obsolete due to the availability of newer, more effective techniques.

Computers built in the last decade can crack an eight-character alphanumeric password containing upper and lower case letters, numbers and special characters in about two hours. Computers are so fast that weak cryptographic hashes can be brute-force broken in a matter of months.

Weak passwords that allow brute force attacks

Today, individuals have multiple accounts and multiple passwords. People tend to use a few simple passwords over and over again, which makes them vulnerable to brute force attacks. Repeated use of the same passwords also allows attackers to access multiple accounts.

Email accounts protected with weak passwords can be linked to other accounts and can be used to recover passwords. This makes them particularly valuable to hackers.

How to avoid brute force attacks

Developers of managed authentication systems can take steps such as blocking IP addresses that frequently fail to log in or adding a delay time to password checking software. Even a delay of a few seconds can greatly reduce the effectiveness of a brute force attack.

Users of network services can reduce their vulnerability to brute-force attacks by choosing longer, more complex passwords. Enabling two-factor authentication and using unique passwords for each service is also recommended.

How to avoid brute force attacks

Brute force attacks are often based on weak passwords and careless network management. Fortunately, both of these can be easily remediated and vulnerabilities that could bring the network and online resources to their knees can be avoided. For example, using strong passwords, limiting login attempts and enabling two-factor authentication can help prevent brute force attacks.

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