Credit cards, cash machines, passwords, the Internet, e-mail and online banking put huge amounts of personal and private data into circulation, all of which has to be encrypted to keep it secure. Fast, modern computers are able to test massive numbers of the ideal tool for hackers, spies and password crackers. The Data Encryption Standard (DES) of 1977-with its 56-bit key-provided around 72 million possibilities, and this was supposed to make the task of cracking a code by persistent trial and error next to impossible. However, computers were already able to overcome this obstacle by as early as 1999. Today, there is the improved, fast Advanced Encryption Standard (AES)-with its 128-bit key-which is aimed at providing security for the 21st century. A computer capable of cracking the DES in one second would require 149 trillion years to crack the AES. However, given the rapid development of computers it may not take quite that long.
Real security will probably only be provided by quantum cryptography, which is still only at a very early experimental stage. In this system, the key cannot be stolen because it changes on access and become useless.