In cryptography, the XSL attack is a method of cryptanalysis for block ciphers. The attack was first published in 2002 by researchers Nicolas Courtois and Josef Pieprzyk. It has caused some controversy as it was claimed to have the potential to break the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) cipher—also known as Rijndael—faster than an exhaustive search. Since AES is already widely used in commerce and government for the transmission of secret information, finding a technique that can shorten the amount of time it takes to retrieve the secret message without having the key could have wide implications.
The method has a high work-factor, which unless lessened, means the technique does not reduce the effort to break AES in comparison to an exhaustive search. Therefore, it does not affect the real-world security of block ciphers in the near future. Nonetheless, the attack has caused some experts to express greater unease at the algebraic simplicity of the current AES.
In overview, the XSL attack relies on first analyzing the internals of a cipher and deriving a system of quadratic simultaneous equations. These systems of equations are typically very large, for example 8000 equations with 1600 variables for the 128-bit AES. Several methods for solving such systems are known. In the XSL attack, a specialized algorithm, termed XSL (eXtended Sparse Linearization), is then applied to solve these equations and recover the key.
The attack is notable for requiring only a handful of known plaintexts to perform; previous methods of cryptanalysis, such as linear and differential cryptanalysis, often require unrealistically large numbers of known or chosen plaintexts.
Solving multivariate quadratic equations (MQ) is an NP-hard problem (in the general case) with several applications in cryptography. The XSL attack requires an efficient algorithm for tackling MQ. In 1999, Kipnis and Shamir showed that a particular public key algorithm—known as the Hidden Field Equations scheme (HFE)—could be reduced to an overdetermined system of quadratic equations (more equations than unknowns). One technique for solving such systems is linearization, which involves replacing each quadratic term with an independent variable and solving the resultant linear system using an algorithm such as Gaussian elimination. To succeed, linearization requires enough linearly independent equations (approximately as many as the number of terms). However, for the cryptanalysis of HFE there were too few equations, so Kipnis and Shamir proposed re-linearization, a technique where extra non-linear equations are added after linearization, and the resultant system is solved by a second application of linearization. Re-linearization proved general enough to be applicable to other schemes.
In 2000, Courtois et al. proposed an improved algorithm for MQ known as XL (for eXtended Linearization), which increases the number of equations by multiplying them with all monomials of a certain degree. Complexity estimates showed that the XL attack would not work against the equations derived from block ciphers such as AES. However, the systems of equations produced had a special structure, and the XSL algorithm was developed as a refinement of XL which could take advantage of this structure. In XSL, the equations are multiplied only by carefully selected monomials, and several variants have been proposed.
Research into the efficiency of XL and its derivative algorithms remains ongoing (Yang and Chen, 2004).
Courtois and Pieprzyk (2002) observed that AES (Rijndael) and partially also Serpent could be expressed as a system of quadratic equations. The variables represent not just the plaintext, ciphertext and key bits, but also various intermediate values within the algorithm. The S-box of AES appears to be especially vulnerable to this type of analysis, as it is based on the algebraically simple inverse function. Subsequently, other ciphers have been studied to see what systems of equations can be produced (Biryukov and De Cannière, 2003), including Camellia, KHAZAD, MISTY-1 and KASUMI. Unlike other forms of cryptanalysis, such as differential and linear cryptanalysis, only one or two known plaintexts are required.
The XSL algorithm is tailored to solve the type of equation systems that are produced. Courtois and Pieprzyk estimate that an "optimistic evaluation shows that the XSL attack might be able to break Rijndael [with] 256 bits and Serpent for key lengths [of] 192 and 256 bits." Their analysis, however, is not universally accepted. For example:
In AES 4 Conference, Bonn 2004, one of the inventors of Rijndael, Vincent Rijmen, commented, "The XSL attack is not an attack. It is a dream."  Promptly Courtois answered "It will become your nightmare".
In 2003, Murphy and Robshaw discovered an alternative description of AES, embedding it in a larger cipher called "BES", which can be described using very simple operations over a single field, GF(28). An XSL attack mounted on this system yields a simpler set of equations which would break AES with complexity of around 2100, if the Courtois and Pieprzyk analysis is correct. In 2005 Cid and Leurent gave evidence that, in its proposed form, the XSL algorithm does not provide an efficient method for solving the AES system of equations; however Courtois disputes their findings. In a paper in the AES 4 Conference (Lecture Notes in Computer Science 3373), Toli and Zanoni proved that the work of Murphy and Robshaw is flawed too. At FSE 2007, Chu-Wee Lim and Khoongming Khoo showed that it cannot possibly work as presented.
Even if XSL works against some modern algorithms, the attack currently poses little danger in terms of practical security. Like many modern cryptanalytic results, it would be a so-called "certificational weakness": while faster than a brute force attack, the resources required are still huge, and it is very unlikely that real-world systems could be compromised by using it. Future improvements could increase the practicality of an attack, however. Because this type of attack is new and unexpected, some cryptographers have expressed unease at the algebraic simplicity of ciphers like Rijndael. Bruce Schneier and Niels Ferguson write, "We have one criticism of AES: we don't quite trust the security…What concerns us the most about AES is its simple algebraic structure… No other block cipher we know of has such a simple algebraic representation. We have no idea whether this leads to an attack or not, but not knowing is reason enough to be skeptical about the use of AES." (Practical Cryptography, 2003, pp56–57)
In cryptography, the XSL attack is a method of cryptanalysis for block ciphers. The attack was first published in 2002 by researchers Nicolas Courtois and Josef Pieprzyk. It has caused some argument as it was claimed it may break the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) cipher—also known as Rijndael—faster than a brute force attack.
Since AES is already widely used in commerce and government for the transmission of secret and classified information, finding a technique that can decrease the amount of time it takes to break the secret message without having the key could cause wide damage.
In 2004 it was shown by one of the cryptanalysts, that the algorithm does not perform as described in its published paper. In addition, the method requires long effort, which unless shortened, means the technique does not reduce the effort to break AES in comparison to a brute force attack. Therefore, it does not affect the real-world security of block ciphers in the near future. However, the attack has caused some experts to insert complexities in the algebraic simplicity of the current AES.
The XSL attack relies on first analyzing the internal design of a cipher then deriving a system of quadratic simultaneous equations. These systems of equations are typically very large, for example 8000 equations with 1600 variables for the 128-bit AES. Several methods for solving such systems are known. In the XSL attack, a specialized algorithm, termed XSL (eXtended Sparse Linearization), is then applied to solve these equations and compute the key.
The attack is well-known and famous for requiring only a handful of known plaintexts to perform; previous methods of cryptanalysis, such as linear and differential cryptanalysis, often require unrealistically large numbers of known or chosen plaintexts, which make them impossible to realize.