As far as I know, there are three standard options for the three keys $K_1$, $K_2$ and $K_3$ used by 3DES:

  1. Three distinct keys.
  2. The first and last key are equal: $K_1$ = $K_3$.
  3. Three equal keys: $K_1 = K_2 = K_3$

I wonder whether there is a way to find out which one of these options is (most likely) being used, given a set of known (plaintext, ciphertext) pairs. The attack does not need to reveal the keys; the goal is simply to find out which keying option is being used.

Currently, the only method I could think of consists of trying to recover the key. That is, apply known attacks on the third and second keying options. For example, a brute-force attack of complexity $2^{56}$ followed by a chosen plaintext attack of complexity $2^{57}$.

So the question is really: is there a way of doing this more efficiently, without having to figure out the keys. If that's not possible, (how) can the above mentioned method be optimized?


1 Answer 1


Actually, there's no known way (assuming practical amounts of computing power) to distinguish keying methods 1 and 2. You mention a "brute-force attack of complexity $O(2^{56})$ followed by a chosen plaintext attack of complexity $O(2^{57})$", there's no obvious way to frame an attack against either of the first two options in this matter; you can't do a brute force attack on one of the keys, because there's no obvious way to confirm a guess on a potential key (other than immediately doing a brute force attack on another of the keys, in which case you're really talking about an effort of $O(2^{112})$.

On the other hand, it is feasible (if moderately difficult) to distinguish the third option from the other two. This third option is essentially DES; a brute force search of all possible $2^{56}$ DES keys will distinguish it given a single plaintext/ciphertext pair. In addition, with sufficient known plaintext/ciphertext, linear cryptanalysis can make the distinguishing effort moderately easier.

The best work I known on linear cryptanalysis is this paper; using approximately $2^{43}$ plaintext/ciphertext pairs (that is, a few trillion), they are able to distinguish DES from a random permutation with about $O(2^{39})$ DES computations, which is moderately cheaper than simple brute force.

  • $\begingroup$ Sorry, I meant "third and second keyring options" rather than "first and second". I've corrected it now. So the method I described is essentially what you mention in the second paragraph, followed by an attack on the second keying option. $\endgroup$
    – Aleph
    Feb 23, 2014 at 20:12
  • $\begingroup$ @AnotherTest & poncho: What about quasi-exhaustively tabulating the length of cycles, and trying to derive a distinguisher from that? Conceivably, having 2 identical permutations in the 2-keys setup could show in the cycle structure. The attack scenario could be semi-realistic in some rare setups. At least the effort for building experimental data is feasible; by keeping information for distinguished points only (like, 30 high bits fixed), moderate memory (2GB) is enough. It is entirely conjectural that a distinguisher could be built from cycle structure, even between 1-key and the rest. $\endgroup$
    – fgrieu
    Feb 28, 2014 at 8:43
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @fgrieu: I don't immediately see how knowledge of (even) the entire cycle structure would give you a hint about which keying option was used. For example, if $A$, $B$, $C$ are random even permutations, then both $AB^{-1}C$ and $AB^{-1}A$ are also random even permutations; hence you would need to make some assumptions about what permutations DES may generate beyond 'it's always an even permutation' $\endgroup$
    – poncho
    Feb 28, 2014 at 14:05
  • $\begingroup$ @poncho: Yes, under a random even permutation model for DES, my idea just can't work. That's bad for plausibility that the cycle structure could allow a distinguisher. An indispensable experimental preliminary would be to investigate if the cycle structure of single-DES (with external canceling of final swap) is distinguishable from that for a random (even) permutation for at least a wide class of keys; starting with "weak" (resp."semi-weak") keys, for which each round (or pair or round) is the same permutation, giving a little meat to the possibility that it shows in the cycle structure. $\endgroup$
    – fgrieu
    Feb 28, 2014 at 18:09

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