How to Break 30 Per Cent of Passwords in Seconds

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This article opens a new series dedicated to breaking passwords. It’s no secret that simply getting a good password recovery tool is not enough to successfully break a given password. Brute-force attacks are inefficient for modern formats (e.g. encrypted Office 2013 documents), while using general dictionaries can still be too much for speedy attacks and too little to actually work. In this article, we’ll discuss the first of the two relatively unknown vectors of attack that can potentially break 30 to 70 per cent of real-world passwords in a matter of minutes. The second method will be described in the follow-up article.

The Speed of Brute Force

With today’s GPU acceleration algorithms, cloud computing and distributed attacks, one can gather substantial resources to crack a password. So why are we saying that brute-force attacks are inefficient? It’s simply a matter of speed. Even the latest hardware can offer just barely acceptable speeds when attacking modern protection formats such as Microsoft BitLocker or Office 2013 passwords.

As you can see, attacking an Office 2013 document is relatively slow at only 7100 passwords per second. We came to that number on a single high-end PC equipped with a single NVIDIA GTX 1080 board. Granted, you can bump up the number of GTX boards or use several computers, and while it does help, it may still not be fast enough.
Using an online password calculator, we can count how many possible combinations there are for the different types of passwords. For example, a very simple password containing 6 lower-case letters and no numbers already has 309 million possible combinations. With a computer equipped with a GTX 1080 board that is capable of trying 7100 passwords per second (Microsoft Office 2013) you’re looking 12 hours of brute-forcing, which is quite reasonable. A more typical 8-character alphanumeric password has 2.8 trillion possible combinations will take 12.5 years to break.
In other words, you’re looking at the following real-world recovery speeds:

Per second Per hour Per day
MS Office 2013 7100 25,560,000 613,440,000
What can be broken 2-3 characters 4 alphanumeric characters 5 alphanumeric characters (just barely)

Of course, you can speed it up by adding more GPU accelerators and building a network for performing a distributed attack, but there are smarter attacks that are much cheaper and a lot faster than brute-force.
There are two ways to speed up the attack: increasing attack speed or reducing the number of passwords to try.

Use Real Passwords

Reducing the number of possible combinations to try during the attack is the most efficient and cost-effective way of breaking passwords. Traditionally, security researchers make an assumption that most passwords are based on dictionary words. While this is true for many passwords, it’s extremely insecure to use just one or two words from the dictionary as a password. In many cases, users will base their passwords on the dictionary, using a mix of lower-case and upper-case characters and numbers to make their passwords more complex. We’ll cover the possible mutations in one of the later articles. Today we’ll be looking at something else: the real passwords chosen by real users.
When attacking a document that belongs to a user you know nothing about, building a relevant custom dictionary may be a problem. However, there is a workaround.
Many users think alike. They tend to choose the same passwords. How do we know? Because, from time to time, these passwords leak. LinkedIn, eBay, Twitter, Dropbox and many other big name online services have been compromised and user passwords leaked. Mark Burnett ( takes his time to monitor these leaks and maintain lists of the most common passwords. His Top 10,000 Passwords article is available at the following link:
According to Mark Burnett, there are still a huge number of people who pick from a very small list of common passwords. Here are some interesting facts gleaned from his most recent data:

  • 0.5% of users have the password password;
  • 0.4% have the passwords password or 123456;
  • 0.9% have the passwords password, 123456 or 12345678;
  • 1.6% have a password from the top 10 passwords
  • 4.4% have a password from the top 100 passwords
  • 9.7% have a password from the top 500 passwords
  • 13.2% have a password from the top 1,000 passwords
  • 30% have a password from the top 10,000 passwords

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