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Brute Force Code Cracking

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Keep inputting codes until it works!

This work is a proposed Trope, Tropers can vote and offer feedback in the comments section below.
Proposed By:
NateTheGreat on Jun 23rd 2017 at 12:54:57 PM
Last Edited By:
NateTheGreat on Feb 4th 2018 at 10:45:16 AM
Name Space: Main
Page Type: trope

"A million possible security codes. Let's try them all!"
D.A.V.E. (Digitally Advanced Villain Emulator), The Batman, "Gotham's Ultimate Criminal Mastermind"

In real life locks that require security codes will only allow a certain number of failed attempts before locking up and triggering an alarm. In fiction this doesn't happen, the lock just beeps and resets. This will allow someone (usually, but not always, a robot or speedster) to patiently input code after code until the door unlocks. Related to Password Slot Machine, and thus will go on the Insecurity System index.

Note that only physical manipulation of the keys is allowed. As soon as someone gets into the wires and hooks up a device for a direct electrical or computer interface, we're getting into Hollywood Hacking and Hollywood Encryption territory, which are different tropes entirely. That doesn't mean that thieving devices aren't allowed; they just have to be limited to physical manipulation methods only (think Tinman Typist).


Examples

Film — Live-Action

  • In Spiderman Homecoming, when Peter gets locked into a time-locked vault, he uses his TI-83 calculator, notebook paper, a pencil, and the assistance of his AI, Karen, to run all possible permutations of the pass code until he arrives at the correct entry and the doors unlock and let him out. When he first arrived, Karen told him this was the most secure facility in the country, but it doesn't have cameras or motion detectors to detect movement inside of the facilities and neither the porting of an unauthorized device nor hundreds of incorrect passcode attempts trigger an alarm.
  • WarGames. When the NORAD Artificial Intelligence Joshua wants to launch the U.S. land-based ICBM force at the Soviet Union, he sends random combinations of alphanumeric characters to the computers controlling the missile silos until he hits the launch code.

Live-Action TV

  • In The Flash (2014):
    • In "Family of Rogues", Barry poses as a tech support expert to help Snart trick his father. Barry pretends to use his computer skills to hack a control panel, while in reality, he uses super speed to enter every possible combination.
    • In "Attack on Central City", Barry must deactivate a missile launcher by inputting the correct code into its control panel. His tech support allies specify that this type of security system won't set off the missile if an inaccurate code is inputted.

Western Animation

  • The Batman. D.A.V.E. is a robot who can crack a security code within five seconds by just entering possibilities into the panel until it opens the door.
  • In Ben 10: Omniverse, Ben as XLR8 types in every combination for a bomb's disarming code.
  • In the Justice League two-part episode "A Better World", the Flash uses this approach to try and release Batman from his shackles. However, Batman correctly guesses that the code is 91939, as he and Lord Batman think alike.
  • In the Justice League Unlimited episode "The Great Brain Robbery", Lex Luthor's mind has been accidentally put into Flash's body. He tries to escape the Watchtower by brute forcing a security door but is interrupted by Green Lantern and Red Tornado before he can find the right code.
  • In Wolverine and the X-Men, Quicksilver speed types in order to guess a computer password, to which he is granted access.

Real Life

  • In Fez, many puzzles involve translating messages into button patterns that you must press. For the black monolith puzzle, there is absolutely no in-game clue about the proper button pattern. Since it would have taken years for a single player to test every combination, the players banded together to collaboratively brute-force the answer, setting up websites to keep track of unsuccessful attempts until they finally found the combo that worked.

Subtrope of Try Everything. Contrast One Password Attempt Ever.

Feedback: 72 replies

Jun 23rd 2017 at 1:37:40 PM

I like the concept and have definitely seen it in a few places (sadly, none come to mind), but the name is longer than a fucking Leonard Cohen song. I don't really have a better idea off the top of my head, though.

Jun 23rd 2017 at 2:11:04 PM

Descriptive, but seems like word salad. There has to be something better.

Jun 23rd 2017 at 2:17:39 PM

Super Fast Code Bruteforcing? / Super Fast Code Brute Forcing?

Jun 23rd 2017 at 2:36:52 PM

I wish we could just use the common-use term "brute-force attack", but obviously that title would confuse somebody who'd assume it was about physical confrontations.

Jun 23rd 2017 at 4:36:29 PM

  • In the Justice League two-part episode "A Better World", the Flash uses this approach to try and release Batman from his shackles. However, Batman correctly guesses that the code is 91939, as he and Lord Batman think alike.

Jun 23rd 2017 at 10:16:40 PM

  • Corrected punctuation (added commas, added periods at the ends of sentences).
  • Examples section
    • Added a line separating the Description and Examples section.
    • Added the word "Examples".
    • Added media section titles.
    • Deleted "The page quote from... is the simplest example" as per How To Write An Example - Remember That This Is A Wiki.

Jun 23rd 2017 at 10:19:03 PM

Film

  • War Games. When the NORAD Artificial Intelligence Joshua wants to launch the U.S. land-based ICBM force at the Soviet Union, he sends random combinations of alphanumeric characters to the computers controlling the missile silos until he hits the launch code.

Jun 24th 2017 at 8:43:34 AM

Should we remove the superspeed requirement and just make this Brute Force Code Cracking? Are there enough examples of a character given enough time to find a code given enough attempts (and without setting off an alarm)?

Jun 24th 2017 at 10:54:41 AM

Yeah, it looks like we may need to go for the broader trope.

Not sure if this would fall under Videogame or Real Life:

  • In Fez, many puzzles involve translating messages into button patterns that you must press. For the black monolith puzzle, there is absolutely no in-game clue about the proper button pattern. Since it would have taken years for a single player to test every combination, the players banded together to collaboratively brute-force the answer, setting up websites to keep track of unsuccessful attempts until they finally found the combo that worked.

Jul 26th 2017 at 3:46:42 PM

The most recent season of The Flash has an episode where Barry must do this to deactivate a missile launcher that is aimed at Central City. At least his friends back at STAR Labs tell him specifically that a wrong answer won't make anything explode.

Jul 27th 2017 at 4:11:32 AM

The third season episode "Attack on Central City."

Jul 27th 2017 at 6:47:07 PM

Shouldn't this be a subsection of Hollywood hacking?

Jul 27th 2017 at 7:41:53 PM

Film

  • Young punk John Connor from Terminator 2 Judgment Day takes a notebook computer with a ribbon wire peripheral to an ATM. There, John inserts the peripheral into the card slot, and runs a PIN generator until it stumbles across the correct access code (out of ten thousand at most). In seconds, John has a handful of cash. Why an ATM would accept PIN input from a mag stripe reader instead of the usual keypad is never explained.

Jul 28th 2017 at 4:29:23 AM

No, that's another trope. This is manual input only. Your example is "hacking", not "cracking."

Jul 28th 2017 at 7:37:07 AM

Ben 10 Omniverse: Episode "Ben 23" has Ben trying to disarm a bomb attached to the arm of his parallel universe counterpart, by going through every single combination possible.

Doctor Who: "Dalek", the Ninth Doctor stumbles upon a Dalek at a facility. The workers close a door on it which requires entering a code to unlock, which the Doctor replies won't stop it for long.

Bywater: I've sealed the compartment. It can't get out, that lock's got a billion combinations.
The Doctor: The Dalek's a genius. It can calculate a thousand billion combinations in one second flat.

One episode of Family Guy also has something similar, although it involved phone numbers instead.

Jul 30th 2017 at 10:29:22 AM

^ Notably, the Dalek forces the lock by using its unarticulated plunger arm against the keypad, entering combinations far more rapidly than the keypad should have been able to handle.

Sep 6th 2017 at 7:00:55 AM

Yu Gi Oh! Abridged Season 3 has Melvin (Marik's dark side) attempting to break into the infamous locked door. At first he uses 4-letter words having to do with pain, but then he starts the usual number combination tries. The code ends up being 9999, but behind this locked door is a second locked door.

Sep 6th 2017 at 9:15:57 AM

Film

  • Lieutenant Data from Star Trek Nemesis rescues his captain from a Reman brig, and escorts him to the shuttle bay of the Scimitar. While Captain Picard conducts a firefight with a Reman security squad, Data tries to crack to shuttle bay access code. After eight failed attempts and much polite urging from Picard, Data succeeds in his ninth input.

Sep 7th 2017 at 4:17:51 AM

  • In Spiderman Homecoming, Peter is locked in an underground vault. Karen helps him hack the system to get out, which requires him to input every code between 0 and 300.

Sep 7th 2017 at 4:46:56 AM

  • Portal 2:
    • When Wheatley's attempt at bringing an escape pod goes awry and he instead accidentally initiates the power-up sequence for GLaDOS, he tries to stop it by attempting to brute-force the password. Very, very slowly. Obviously, it doesn't work.
    • During the final boss fight, if you loiter around long enough, Wheatley will once again try to brute-force a password, this time to the facility's Vital Maintenance Protocols, and after his first two attempts fail, he'll instead throw a random password in desperation. Amazingly, it works. Too bad that in his stupidity, he ends up deleting the contents shortly after.

Sep 7th 2017 at 4:25:12 AM

Note that lock-after-X-failures mechanism is not the only thing preventing brute force attacks. Modern cryptography is practically all about finding algorithms where a linear increase in key length corresponds to exponential increase in brute-force attempts. Read: Past a certain code length, it doesn't matter if you can move at the speed of light, you'll still need thousands of years to try out every code.

Sep 7th 2017 at 5:24:39 AM

See also Password Slot Machine.

Done twice by Superman is Lois And Clark. Attempted by Flash in Justice League

Sep 7th 2017 at 5:41:00 AM

  • In Ben 10 Omniverse, Ben as XLR8 types in every combination for a bomb's disarming code.

  • In Wolverine And The X Men, Quicksilver speed types in order to guess a computer password, to which he is granted access.

Another examples for The Flash 2014

  • In "Family of Rogues", Barry poses as a tech support expert to help Snart trick his father. Barry pretends to use his computer skills to hack a control panel, while in reality he uses super speed to enter every possible combination.

Oct 15th 2017 at 2:00:35 PM

In the unpicked up pilot Northstar ( http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0091650/ ), the astronaut protagonist gains powers from looking directly at the sun on a mission - whenever his eyes are exposed to sunlight on Earth he gains increasing powers and abilities the longer he's exposed but it gets more dangerous for him. He discovered his powers after walking out into a bright sunlit day from a secure facility, panicking when his eyes were exposed to sunlight and he started having weird side effects and running back towards the facility and brute forcing a four digit electronic combination lock within ten seconds to get back into the darker interior.

Sep 20th 2017 at 11:35:20 PM

Oct 12th 2017 at 10:37:41 AM

  • In Life Is Strange, this is the solution to a few puzzles:
    • When trying to unlock Nathan's phone, this is subverted as an Anti Frustration Feature if you can't guess the correct pin from the information you're given. Entering the wrong PIN 3 times gives you the option of simply entering the PUK (which you have readily available).
    • This is an option when you need the keycode for entering The Dark Room (you're given it, but the document in question is one you probably forgot you even saw). You have to use Max's time rewinding powers to get past the limited amount of guesses you have. The amount of guesses you need to make is reduced considerably by the fact that the numbers that make up the 3 digit code are noticeably worn down.

Oct 12th 2017 at 11:15:56 AM

In Real Life, this is pretty much how the Enigma traffic was broken in World War II. Oh, the Allied codebreakers took advantage of known German cipher procedure to narrow down the options, but ultimately the bombe was a mechanical version of this trope, trying every possible cipher key much faster than a human cryptographer could.

Oct 12th 2017 at 6:56:07 PM

In Grand Theft Auto V, Michael, Franklin and a team of freelance robbers break into FIB Headquarters to steal a hard drive that contains classified data on their activities. If you use the helicopter insertion method, you'll land on the roof of the FIB HQ building and you'll arrive at the server room where you'll use a brute force password program made by the selected hacker of the player's choice to break into the servers since they're protected by passwords.

Oct 15th 2017 at 11:28:27 PM

  • Examples section
    • Changed media section title to All Caps.
    • Italicized work names as per How To Write An Example - Emphasis For Work Names.

Oct 16th 2017 at 8:20:30 AM

  • In ‘’Nine Hours Nine Persons Nine Doors’’, Lotus cracks the password of the laboratory’s computer by inputting passwords until she finds the right one, revealing Hidden Depths of computer expertise to do so. As it was part of a puzzle designed by Zero for them to have a fighting chance of solving, it makes sense that it would not stop accepting passwords after a number of incorrect ones.

Oct 16th 2017 at 11:31:13 AM

  • In Lois And Clark, Superman used his Super Speed at least twice to access the villains' files that way.
  • In the short story "The Mothballed Spaceship" from the Deathworld series, the heroes try to access the titular battleship that way. The idea itself is sound, but the ship cannot process the sent codes fast enough to complete the task in time.

Nov 1st 2017 at 3:55:16 PM

I'll only support this one if the title of the trope is changed.

Nov 1st 2017 at 4:17:49 PM

^ Why is the title bad?

Nov 1st 2017 at 4:40:41 PM

^It doesn't quite convey the meaning the trope is suggesting. "Brute Force" sounds like someone bashing the key pad, while this is more about speed typing in codes.

Nov 1st 2017 at 6:03:54 PM

Actually, Brute Force means "trying every possible combination of passwords/codes until you guess it".

Speaking of:

  • Modern encryption defies this trope by using 128 to 256 bit keys (as opposed to the 56 bit keys that were considered military technology back in the 70's). Breaking a 128 bit key, using computer hardware that has reached the theoretical limit of current technology, would take a large proportion of Earth's energy production simply to power a computer capable of doing so. However, since there are more energy efficient ways of getting raw processing power, sometimes the larger standard is preferred. Breaking a 256 bit key with a computer that could check 1 billion billion passwords a second would take roughly 3 sexdecillionnote  years to try every possible combination.

Nov 8th 2017 at 2:54:10 AM

Me things the brief overview needs a wee bit more expanding.

Nov 8th 2017 at 6:17:29 AM

Literature

  • Digital Fortress: Discussed thoroughly and deconstructed; the titular computer the NSA possesses, supposedly perfected this and should be able to crack any code within reasonable time. Then villains send the NSA a code that according to them is "Brute Force Proof" because it changes its own encryption algorithm frequently. Also reconstructed when in the end it turns out the sent code never was a Brute Force Cracking-proof code, and the villains never circumvented Brute Force Code Cracking; the alleged "code" was a virus deliberately made to destroy the Digital Fortress computer.

Nov 8th 2017 at 12:44:01 PM

Just noticed that Open Says Me has a single-sentence mention of this trope in its description: "Occasionally you have a speedster or a robot picking the lock by blazing through all combinations faster than the human eye can follow."

Nov 8th 2017 at 1:05:50 PM

Dictionary Attack: "In cryptanalysis and computer security, a dictionary attack is a technique for defeating a cipher or authentication mechanism by trying to determine its decryption key or passphrase by trying hundreds or sometimes millions of likely possibilities, such as words in a dictionary."

Nov 10th 2017 at 7:05:42 AM

Live-Action TV:

  • In the Doctor Who Series 1 episode Dalek, the eponymous Arch Enemy of the Doctor was locked in a room with a keylock. Henry van Statten says that is an advanced computer system with millions of possible combinations and it's impossible to be opened. The Doctor refuted him when he advices him about daleks, and later proved by the dalek, opening the door in few minutes.

Nov 10th 2017 at 3:39:02 PM

  • In Dishonored 2, it is possible to brute-force the "unbreakable" Jindosh puzzle lock in 120 attempts in the worst case (60 on average), which is actually 8 times faster than any regular digit-based code lock in the game, which requires trying out a 1000 combinations (500 on average). That said, coming up with an efficient brute-force method is about as challenging as solving the lock's underlying "Einstein riddle", as the developers had intended.

Nov 10th 2017 at 8:45:51 PM

  • At one point in The Last Days Of FOXHOUND, the character Nano Jackal uses this technique to break into the email account of a Corrupt Corporate Executive. (Whose password apparently was "iluvmoney.") As she is essentially something of a cyborg and can connect herself to the computer terminal and have a program try every 9 letter combination in existence while she takes a short nap, this case is better justified than some cases. (And the author takes a moment to lampshade the Insecurity System at play by titling that particular comic strip "This is not how cryptography works.")

Dec 5th 2017 at 12:36:42 AM

Please clarify the Dr. Who example. Is this actually brute force, or was there sonic screwdriver cheating involved?

Dec 5th 2017 at 9:05:29 AM

^Why? When a dalek has to use a sonic screwdriver?? XD

OK, rewriting the example, but it's the dalek who use brute force to open the door in a few minutes

Dec 5th 2017 at 9:20:50 AM

Dec 5th 2017 at 10:35:57 AM

Original Dr. Who comment:

In the Doctor Who Series 1 episode Dalek, the eponymous Arch Enemy of the Doctor was locked in a room with a keylock. Henry van Statten says that is an advanced computer system with millions of possible combinations and it's impossible to be opened. The Doctor refuted him when he advices him about daleks, and later proved by the dalek, opening the door in few minutes.
I didn't see any details about how the door was actually opened. Were codes actually inputted or was the door hacked?

Dec 5th 2017 at 4:07:40 PM

^I couldn't rewrite my addition yet, but if you got a doubt, then see this after 2:09

Dec 12th 2017 at 1:48:39 PM

TV:

  • In Stranger Things episode "The Mind Flayer", Bob successfully brute-force hacks the password-protected computer system at the lab to unlock the doors after an emergency shutdown. His BASIC script recognizably attempted to generate every possible four digit integer combination and fed it to the system. note 

This examples is currently listed on the recap page under Hollywood Hacking and should be moved on launch.

Dec 23rd 2017 at 9:11:32 AM

Video Game:

TV:

  • A rather unrealistic example in CSI Cyber when the team breaks into a secret partition in a smartphone by building a robot armature to type every possible combination of keys in the calculator app. This has even more Fridge Logic associated with it than the normal use of the trope, given that the phone's deceased owner was a gray-hat hacker herself.

Dec 12th 2017 at 2:22:45 PM

Please elaborate the Stranger Things example. That sounds more like hacking. Is there a device that's creating the equivalent of the electrical impulses created by a button press (i.e. as far as the guts of the lock are concerned codes are being entered onto the pad at high speeds)?

Dec 12th 2017 at 6:39:44 PM

Bob writes a code that generates all numbers between 0 to 9999 and throws these at the login. It's the same logic as used for recovery tools for zip&rar password-protected document.

Dec 13th 2017 at 12:20:30 AM

Another example from The Flash: In "Family Of Rogues", when undercover as "Sam" and forced to help Captain Cold and his father with a heist, Barry uses this technique to open a door protected with a code lock.

Dec 13th 2017 at 1:23:51 AM

@Nate: Would it be possible to get some Rolling Updates on this one? Just so we get an idea how the vetted examples should look.

Dec 13th 2017 at 3:29:16 PM

Can be defied by One Password Attempt Ever. The first line on Password Slot Machine can be potholed after launch.

Dec 13th 2017 at 4:45:06 PM

There's a scene in Terminator 2 Judgment Day where John Connor uses a program on his laptop computer to crack ATM PINs. Currently that entry is listed under Password Slot Machine but that's not what the display shows, it does not work like a slot machine. It rather looks like a brute force attack and should be listed here instead.

Dec 23rd 2017 at 8:26:47 AM

Could we get some agreement on the definition? I keep seeing computers being directly connected to the lock, which is hacking, not cracking. This trope should be fingers or mechanical equivalents pushing buttons only, right?

Dec 23rd 2017 at 8:51:23 AM

Webcomics:

  • Discussed in xkcd. "Password Strength" makes the point that longer passwords made of random words are both easier for humans to remember, and harder for a computer to crack in a brute-force attack, than shorter passwords with a lot of letter substitutions.

Feb 1st 2018 at 4:43:25 PM

That xkcd strip is about hacking, not physical manipulation of a lock.

Feb 1st 2018 at 5:01:20 PM

You could make the distinction between brute force hacking and cracking but the narrative purpose stays the same. A broader definition doesn't hurt the idea, IMO.

Feb 1st 2018 at 5:44:42 PM

The problem is that there are so many instances of "put a device on the lock to hack it, the correct code appears via Password Slot Machine" that it gets rather chairs-y, if you get my drift.

Feb 4th 2018 at 6:24:40 AM

I see. Then the description should make the distinction clear to prevent misuse.

Feb 4th 2018 at 9:49:28 AM

Real life:

  • Speculative articles claim that if quantum computers ever become practical, they would completely destroy all our electronic information security measures. The theory is that quantum computers could exploit the ability of subatomic particles to exist in two different states at once (until observed), thus individual bits in the computer could be 0 and 1 simultaneously, thus a quantum processor could run every possible equation simultaneously. This would allow a quantum computer to input every password simultaneously, or to brute-force solve for all the large prime numbers that modern computer cryptography depends on. Of course, the field of quantum computing is still in its infancy, and may never advance that far.

Feb 4th 2018 at 10:45:16 AM

^ OP decided this trope should not be about digital hacking but rather manual input via panels and such.

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