At the beginning of a sunny Monday morning earlier this month, I had never cracked a password. By the end of the day, I had cracked 8,000. Even though I knew password cracking was easy, I didn't know it was ridiculously easy—well, ridiculously easy once I overcame the urge to bash my laptop with a sledgehammer and finally figured out what I was doing.
My journey into the Dark-ish Side began during a chat with our security editor, Dan Goodin, who remarked in an offhand fashion that cracking passwords was approaching entry-level "script kiddie stuff." This got me thinking, because—though I understand password cracking conceptually—I can't hack my way out of the proverbial paper bag. I'm the very definition of a "script kiddie," someone who needs the simplified and automated tools created by others to mount attacks that he couldn't manage if left to his own devices. Sure, in a moment of poor decision-making in college, I once logged into port 25 of our school's unguarded e-mail server and faked a prank message to another student—but that was the extent of my black hat activities. If cracking passwords were truly a script kiddie activity, I was perfectly placed to test that assertion.
It sounded like an interesting challenge. Could I, using only free tools and the resources of the Internet, successfully:
Find a set of passwords to crack
Find a password cracker
Find a set of high-quality wordlists and
Get them all running on commodity laptop hardware in order to
Successfully crack at least one password
In less than a day of work?
I could. And I walked away from the experiment with a visceral sense of password fragility. Watching your own password fall in less than a second is the sort of online security lesson everyone should learn at least once—and it provides a free education in how to build a better password.