In this attack, some asset (information, functionality, identity, etc.) is protected by a finite secret value. The attacker attempts to gain access to this asset by using trial-and-error to exhaustively explore all the possible secret values in the hope of finding the secret (or a value that is functionally equivalent) that will unlock the asset. Examples of secrets can include, but are not limited to, passwords, encryption keys, database lookup keys, and initial values to one-way functions.
The key factor in this attack is the attackers' ability to explore the possible secret space rapidly. This, in turn, is a function of the size of the secret space and the computational power the attacker is able to bring to bear on the problem. If the attacker has modest resources and the secret space is large, the challenge facing the attacker is intractable. While the defender cannot control the resources available to an attacker, they can control the size of the secret space. Creating a large secret space involves selecting one's secret from as large a field of equally likely alternative secrets as possible and ensuring that an attacker is unable to reduce the size of this field using available clues or cryptanalysis. Doing this is more difficult than it sounds since elimination of patterns (which, in turn, would provide an attacker clues that would help them reduce the space of potential secrets) is difficult to do using deterministic machines, such as computers. Assuming a finite secret space, a brute force attack will eventually succeed. The defender must rely on making sure that the time and resources necessary to do so will exceed the value of the information. For example, a secret space that will likely take hundreds of years to explore is likely safe from raw-brute force attacks.
Encryption Brute Forcing
An attacker, armed with the cipher text and the encryption algorithm used, performs an exhaustive (brute force) search on the key space to determine the key that decrypts the cipher text to obtain the plaintext.