Data Encryption Standard (DES)

Data Encryption Standard (DES) is a widely-used method of data encryption using a private (secret) key that was judged so difficult to break by the U.S. government that it was restricted for exportation to other countries.

Data Encryption Standard (DES) is a widely-used method of data encryption using a private (secret) key that was judged so difficult to break by the U.S. government that it was restricted for exportation to other countries. There are 72,000,000,000,000,000 (72 quadrillion) or more possible encryption keys that can be used. For each given message, the key is chosen at random from among this enormous number of keys. Like other private key cryptographic methods, both the sender and the receiver must know and use the same private key.

DES applies a 56-bit key to each 64-bit block of data. The process can run in several modes and involves 16 rounds or operations. Although this is considered "strong" encryption, many companies use "triple DES", which applies three keys in succession. This is not to say that a DES-encrypted message cannot be "broken." Early in 1997, Rivest-Shamir-Adleman, owners of another encryption approach, offered a $10,000 reward for breaking a DES message. A cooperative effort on the Internet of over 14,000 computer users trying out various keys finally deciphered the message, discovering the key after running through only 18 quadrillion of the 72 quadrillion possible keys! Few messages sent today with DES encryption are likely to be subject to this kind of code-breaking effort.

DES originated at IBM in 1977 and was adopted by the U.S. Department of Defense. It is specified in the ANSI X3.92 and X3.106 standards and in the Federal FIPS 46 and 81 standards. Concerned that the encryption algorithm could be used by unfriendly governments, the U.S. government has prevented export of the encryption software. However, free versions of the software are widely available on bulletin board services and Web sites. Since there is some concern that the encryption algorithm will remain relatively unbreakable, NIST has indicated DES will not be recertified as a standard and submissions for its replacement are being accepted. The next standard will be known as the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES).

This was first published in July 2006

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