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What Are Rainbow Table Attacks and How to Safeguard Against Them?

Hackers use tables to steal your password. Here's what that means and what you should do about it.


We all use password protection, which is an effective access control method. It is likely to continue to be a crucial component of cybersecurity for years to come. On the contrary hand, cybercriminals use a variety of techniques to break passwords and gain access without authorization. This includes attacks using rainbow tables. How dangerous are rainbow table attacks, though, and what are they? What can you do, more importantly, to defend yourself from them?

Passwords are never stored in plain text on any platform or application that takes security seriously. In other words, if your password is "password123" (which it should not be for obvious reasons), it won't be stored as such and will instead be stored as a string of letters and numbers.

Password hashing is the process of transforming plain text into an apparently random string of characters. And algorithms, which are automated programs that make use of mathematical formulas to randomize and obfuscate plain text, are used to hash passwords. The most popular hashing formulas include MD5, SHA, Whirlpool, BCrypt, and PBKDF2.

The result of running the password "password123" through the MD5 algorithm is 482c811da5d5b4bc6d497ffa98491e38. The hashed version of "password123" is represented by this string of characters, which is how your password would be stored online.

Therefore, let's assume that you are logging into your email account. You enter the password after entering your username or email address. When you enter plain text into the email service, it automatically converts it to its hashed value and compares it to the hashed value it initially stored when you set up your password. You are authenticated and given access to your account if the values match.
Then, what would happen in a typical rainbow table attack? 

The threat actor would need to acquire password hashes first. They would either conduct a cyberattack or figure out a way to get around a company's security measures to accomplish this. Or they might spend money on a dark web dump of stolen hashes.

Rainbow Table Attacks and How They Work

The hashes would then be converted to plain text. Obviously, in a rainbow table attack, the attacker would use a rainbow table to accomplish this. Philippe Oechslin, an IT expert, invented rainbow tables based on the research of cryptologist and mathematician Martin Hellman. Rainbow tables, named after the colors that represent different functions within a table, reduce the time required to convert a hash to plain text, permitting the cybercriminal to carry out the attack more effectively.

In a typical brute force attack, the threat actor would have to decode each hashed password separately, calculate thousands of word combinations, and then compare them. This trial-and-error method still works and will probably always work, but it is time-consuming. An attacker would only need to run an obtained password hash through a database of hashes, then repeatedly split and reduce it until the plain text is revealed in a rainbow table attack.

This is how rainbow table attacks work in a nutshell. After cracking a password, a threat actor has a plethora of options for what to do next. They can target their victim in a variety of ways, gaining unauthorized access to a wide range of sensitive data, including information related to online baking and other similar activities.

How to Prevent Rainbow Table Attacks

Rainbow table attacks are less common than they once were, but they continue to pose a significant threat to organizations of all sizes, as well as individuals.  Here are five things you can do to prevent a rainbow table attack.

1. Set Up Complex Passwords
2. Use Multi-Factor Authentication
3. Diversify Your Passwords
4. Avoid Weak Hashing Algorithms

Password security is critical in preventing unauthorized access and various types of cyberattacks. However, it entails more than just coming up with a memorable phrase.

To improve your overall cybersecurity, you must first understand how password protection works before taking steps to safeguard your accounts. This may be overwhelming for some, but using dependable authentication methods and a password manager can make a significant difference.
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