The software from ElcomSoft -- a Russian provider of encryption-cracking software and other digital forensic tools -- accomplishes the feat not by cracking the containers themselves, but rather by exploiting the fact that once the containers are accessed, the decryption passwords get stored in computer memory. The software is designed to be used by digital forensic investigators -- for example, when investigating suspected insider theft incidents.
"BitLocker, PGP and TrueCrypt set [an] industry standard in the area of whole-disk and partition encryption," said ElcomSoft CEO Vladimir Katalov in a blog post. "All three tools provide strong, reliable protection, and offer a perfect implementation of strong crypto." As a result, he said that if a user of those tools picks a long, complex password, cracking the encryption container outright would likely be impossible.
[ Forensics software can be a crucial tool in busting the bad guys. Read Cracking Bin Laden's Hard Drives. ]
One encryption container Achilles heel, however, happens when the containers get accessed on a computer. "No one likes typing their long, complex passwords every time they need to read or write a file," said Katalov. "As a result, keys used to encrypt and decrypt data that's being written or read from protected volumes are kept readily accessible in the computer's operating memory. Obviously, what's kept readily accessible can be retrieved near instantly by a third-party tool."
What's needed first, however, is a memory dump, which can be grabbed either using forensic tools, or via a Firewire attack, even if a computer is in hibernation or sleep mode. The Elcomsoft tool then attempts to extract the encryption keys from that dump. "The new product includes algorithms allowing us to analyze dumps of computers' volatile memory, locating areas that contain the decryption keys," Katalov said. "Sometimes the keys are discovered by analyzing byte sequences, and sometimes by examining crypto containers' internal structures. When searching for PGP keys, the user can significantly speed up the process if the exact encryption algorithm is known."
But there's one big caveat when grabbing the needed memory dumps: The targeted encryption containers must be mounted to the computer. "It's important that encrypted volumes are mounted at the time a memory dump is obtained or the PC goes to sleep; otherwise, the decryption keys are destroyed and the content of encrypted volumes cannot be decrypted without knowing the original plain-text password," said Katalov.
The three encryption containers targeted by the software comprise some of the most-used file encryption tools on the market. Microsoft's BitLocker To Go, for example, allows data on removable devices to be encrypted and is included with some premium versions of Windows 7 and Vista, as well as Windows 8.
TrueCrypt, meanwhile, is well-regarded open source data encryption software that currently runs on Windows 7, Vista and XP, as well as Mac OS X and Linux systems. Finally, PGP -- which stands for Pretty Good Privacy -- is available from Symantec, which acquired PGP in 2010.
Elcomsoft also has added plug-ins for TrueCrypt and BitLocker To Go to its Distributed Password Recovery software, which allows users to subject encryption containers to a variety of brute-force attack techniques, as well as a dictionary, password mask and permutation attacks.
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