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RSA Laboratories

2.4.2 What are some of the basic types of cryptanalytic attack?

Cryptanalytic attacks are generally classified into six categories that distinguish the kind of information the cryptanalyst has available to mount an attack. The categories of attack are listed here roughly in increasing order of the quality of information available to the cryptanalyst, or, equivalently, in decreasing order of the level of difficulty to the cryptanalyst. The objective of the cryptanalyst in all cases is to be able to decrypt new pieces of ciphertext without additional information. The ideal for a cryptanalyst is to extract the secret key.

A ciphertext-only attack is one in which the cryptanalyst obtains a sample of ciphertext, without the plaintext associated with it. This data is relatively easy to obtain in many scenarios, but a successful ciphertext-only attack is generally difficult, and requires a very large ciphertext sample. A known-plaintext attack is one in which the cryptanalyst obtains a sample of ciphertext and the corresponding plaintext as well.

A chosen-plaintext attack is one in which the cryptanalyst is able to choose a quantity of plaintext and then obtain the corresponding encrypted ciphertext.

An adaptive-chosen-plaintext attack is a special case of chosen-plaintext attack in which the cryptanalyst is able to choose plaintext samples dynamically, and alter his or her choices based on the results of previous encryptions.

A chosen-ciphertext attack is one in which cryptanalyst may choose a piece of ciphertext and attempt to obtain the corresponding decrypted plaintext. This type of attack is generally most applicable to public-key cryptosystems.

An adaptive-chosen-ciphertext is the adaptive version of the above attack. A cryptanalyst can mount an attack of this type in a scenario in which he has free use of a piece of decryption hardware, but is unable to extract the decryption key from it.

Note that cryptanalytic attacks can be mounted not only against encryption algorithms, but also, analogously, against digital signature algorithms (see Question 2.2.2), MACing algorithms (see Question 2.1.7), and pseudo-random number generators (see Question 2.5.2).

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