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A closer look at why password cracking is a key IT tool

Like a lot of you may well possess, I have a set of DVDs and USB keys with tools I use for fixing problems for consulting clients, relatives, etc. I've made a decision: If you're any kind of professional in this business, you need to add password cracking tools to this toolset. And given that, you need to be looking at Passware and its products.

Passware Kit holds a special place in technology irony: It would obviously be a valuable tool for a malicious hacker, but it's also valuable for security professionals. It can recover or reset passwords from encrypted data files, saved passwords for websites, Windows system passwords, and full disk encryption keys. There are more advanced features as well.

There are numerous versions in the Passware Kit product line. At the top of the line is Password Kit Forensic, which competes somewhat against higher-end and more expensive products. I don't know how well it competes in that paranoid space in terms of formal forensics procedures, but I doubt any of the other products have a set of file decryptors to compete with Passware's. In fact, some of them simply refer users with such needs to unnamed third parties (probably Passware). Being a higher-end product it isn’t exactly cheap itself, weighing in at $995 (£595).

Passware also sells Standard, Professional and Enterprise products with different mixes of tools and some single product tools as one-offs, such as $39 (£23) for decryptors for Word, Excel, QuickBooks, FileMaker and Windows itself, but this may not make sense when for $10 (£6) more you can get the Basic version that supports more than 40 password types, mostly MS Office, and does more.

But for certain file types you need the $79 (£47) Standard or $195 (£117) Professional version. Some of the most valuable types, including users on Windows servers and QuickBooks, are only in the Professional version.

The Enterprise version goes a few steps further, adding support for multiple CPU cores, Nvidia GPU acceleration and cloud-based decryption services for greater performance. It can also decrypt some full-disk encryption volumes.

You might need to think carefully about the more expensive versions, but if you do any kind of PC support the Standard version is easily justifiable (and probably the Professional version).

There's another argument for having tools like this that I believe in: It allows you to be bolder with complex passwords. If the worst case is that you'll have to spend some time cracking the password if you forget it, that's still better than using weak passwords that are easily guessed (for more, see our advice on stronger passwords).

There are cases, many of them in fact, where Passware can take a long time. If it has to implement a brute force attack and you can't give it any clues at all about the password, then it could take days, or even longer. But if you can give it any information, like a string that appears in the password, or a pattern of numbers and letters, the time gets cut considerably. And of course the more complex and the longer the password, the longer it will tend to take. There are some file types, like encrypted ZIP files, that can be decrypted quickly, depending on the particulars.

But whether it takes a day or a minute, it's a good bet that Passware will pay for itself at some point when it restores a key file that was feared lost.