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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia Copyright © 2004.

Licensed from Columbia University Press

Licensed from Columbia University Press

A chosen-plaintext attack (CPA) is an attack model for cryptanalysis which presumes that the attacker has the capability to choose arbitrary plaintexts to be encrypted and obtain the corresponding ciphertexts. The goal of the attack is to gain some further information which reduces the security of the encryption scheme. In the worst case, a chosen-plaintext attack could reveal the scheme's secret key.

This appears, at first glance, to be an unrealistic model; it would certainly be unlikely that an attacker could persuade a human cryptographer to encrypt large amounts of plaintexts of the attacker's choosing. Modern cryptography, on the other hand, is implemented in software or hardware and is used for a diverse range of applications; for many cases, a chosen-plaintext attack is often very feasible. Chosen-plaintext attacks become extremely important in the context of public key cryptography, where the encryption key is public and attackers can encrypt any plaintext they choose.

Any cipher that can prevent chosen-plaintext attacks is then also guaranteed to be secure against known-plaintext and ciphertext-only attacks; this is a conservative approach to security.

Two forms of chosen-plaintext attack can be distinguished:

- Batch chosen-plaintext attack, where the cryptanalyst chooses all plaintexts before any of them are encrypted. This is often the meaning of an unqualified use of "chosen-plaintext attack".
- Adaptive chosen-plaintext attack, where the cryptanalyst makes a series of interactive queries, choosing subsequent plaintexts based on the information from the previous encryptions.

Non-randomized (deterministic) public key encryption algorithms are vulnerable to simple "dictionary"-type attacks, where the attacker builds a table of likely messages and their corresponding ciphertexts. To find the decryption of some observed ciphertext, the attacker simply looks the ciphertext up in the table. As a result, public-key definitions of security under chosen-plaintext attack require probabilistic encryption (i.e., randomized encryption). Conventional symmetric ciphers, in which the same key is used to encrypt and decrypt a text, may also be vulnerable to other forms of chosen-plaintext attack, for example, differential cryptanalysis of block ciphers.

A technique termed Gardening was used by Allied codebreakers in World War II who were solving messages encrypted on the Enigma machine. Gardening can be viewed as a chosen-plaintext attack.

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Last updated on Wednesday February 27, 2008 at 08:58:10 PST (GMT -0800)

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