Thunder Tables™ Explained

May 21st, 2009 by Andrey Belenko

From time to time we’re receiving questions regarding various technologies used in our products, especially Thunder Tables™ and GPU acceleration. Today I’d like to explain what exactly Thunder Tables™ is (and what it’s not).


About Thunder Tables™

From user’s perspective Thunder Tables™ is a technology allowing fast and guaranteed decryption of Adobe PDF and Microsoft Word documents, it is currently supported in AOPB and APDFPR (Enterprise Editions only).

From technology perspective, Thunder Tables™ is time-memory tradeoff method based on Rainbow Tables and incorporating important improvements.

What is time-memory tradeoff?

If one needs to find key used to encrypt particular document then most straightforward way is to simply try all possible keys until one of them will match. This is called brute-force attack and it usually takes a lot of time.

Now, imagine there are many documents of same type encrypted on different key and we’d like to find all the keys. Doing brute-force on each of them is not very smart. Much better option is to build lookup table containing all possible keys so that to find key for particular document you need to perform only one table lookup. So, to be able to find keys faster we need to spend some time in pre-computing table and we also need some memory to store table. This is exactly what time-memory tradeoff is: making key search faster at the cost of precomputations and storage. Here’s what Wikipedia thinks about this:

«In computer science, a space-time or time-memory tradeoff is a situation where […] the computation time can be reduced at the cost of increased memory use. [..] Often, by exploiting a space-time tradeoff, a program can be made to run much faster»

Example with lookup table is an extreme one and not very practical because of its storage requirements: for 40-bit key you need 5 terabytes to store such table. To be practical time-memory tradeoff should require reasonable amount of storage (say, few gigabytes) and provide significant speedup over brute-force (say, 1000 times faster). That’s where Rainbow Tables come into play.

Rainbow Tables

Rainbow Tables were introduced in 2003 by Philippe Oechslin in «Making a Faster Cryptanalytic Time-Memory Trade-Off». This work is a simple yet very smart improvement of approach described by Martin Hellman in 1980 in «A Cryptanalytic Time-Memory Trade-Off». Original Hellman’s method, however, had some drawbacks which has limited it’s applicability in practice.

Rainbow Tables are perfectly suited for both password recovery encryption key recovery, but Philippe was focused on passwords in his work and I think that’s the reason why most software was also focused on applying Rainbow Tables to password recovery. First software utilizing Rainbow Tables to decrypt documents, ophcrack_office by Philippe Oechslin, appeared in late 2006. It supported Microsoft Word and Excel documents with 40-bit encryption. Elcomsoft was first to successfully apply Rainbow Tables to decrypt PDF documents with 40-bit encryption, APDFPR with this feature appeared in early 2007.

One important limitation of Rainbow Tables (which is inherited from original Hellman’s method) is that it is not possible to achieve 100% success probability with it. Most Rainbow Tables have success rate in the range 97-99% which is quite high, but if you have many files to process chances that Rainbow Tables will fail for one of them are getting higher. Thunder Tables™ remove this restriction.

Thunder Tables™

Let’s assume there are 100 encrypted Word documents which we need to decrypt. Running them trough Rainbow Tables with 99% success rate will on average decrypt 99 and fail for one document, for which we’ll have to launch very slow brute-force attack. You can expect 99 out of 100 files to be decrypted in less than four hours but this one last file will take few days to decrypt. What is even worse, 99% of that brute-force time will be spent in vain because 99% of all possible keys are in Rainbow Tables and if document was encrypted with one of those 99% keys then Rainbow Table would have found it. So, there are only 1% of possible keys left, but brute-force doesn’t “know” about this.

To address this problem Thunder Tables™ contain additional file which lists all keys for which Rainbow Table fails. That is, if Rainbow Table attack on particular document fails, brute-force now “knows” which keys to check and will not spend time trying 99% of incorrect keys.

This idea looks very simple, but the problem is how to implement it, particularly how to build magic file with keys for which Rainbow Table attack will fail. You can’t just run every key through Rainbow Tables attack — it will take forever. You can, in theory, build a bitmap of keys in RAM, but you’ll need 128 GB of RAM for 40 bits which is kind of rare today (and was even rarer two years ago when we invented this). We had to be creative and finally we found the way. Thunder Tables™ for PDF were built on single Intel Core2 CPU with only 1 GB of RAM.

Usage Notes

Thunder Tables™ are about 4 GB for each document type and they are shipped on DVD. DVDs are good for archiving data, but you definitely should not try to use them for actual attack — it will be too slow. Copy tables to hard drive or (much better) to USB Flash Drive. Specify location of tables in program settings and it will use them automatically.

Thunder Tables™ can be used to decrypt Microsoft Word and Adobe PDF documents. For Microsoft Excel we provide conventional Rainbow Tables with success rate about 97.5%. Reason for not providing Thunder Tables™ for it is because Excel uses very complicated file format and it is generally impossible to predict which data will be stored at where in a file. This knowledge is required to mount successful Thunder Tables™ or Rainbow Tables attack. According to our statistics, 3-5% of Excel files (created not only with Microsoft Excel but also with other compatible tools) have some features which can prevent successful usage of Rainbow Tables. This is why even if we build Thunder Tables™ for Microsoft Excel (which is not very difficult to do) we still cannot guarantee decryption with those tables because of Excel file format peculiarities. And this is also why there is no real sense in pursuing success probabilites higher than 97% — chances of getting "incompatible" file are just higher than chances that attack will fail.

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11 Comments on "Thunder Tables™ Explained"

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What about Access 2007 ACCDB files (it uses 40 bit keys for RC4 encryption)?
I know that the file format is quite complex and uncompacted databases are a nightmare, but still, if somebody can do this, then it’s you guys.

Andrey Malyshev

Access 2007 ACCDB files are supported in Advanced Office Password Recovery ( That’s true – 40 bit RC4 encryption is used and the algorithm is similar to MS Office XP with CSP encryption.

Unfortunately Thunder Tables are not applicable in this case because we can find only RC4 key that corresponds to the first 512-byte document block. The key is changing for each next document block and we must find the 160-bit hash to find each key value and decrypt the whole document. Therefore effective key length in this encryption algorithm is 160 bit.


Aren’ the other 4 encryption keys derived from the first?
So, if you know the database page 0 structure, you could add brute force attack to try to decrypt the database (like AOPB)?
The db could be decrypted in a month, if I’m not all wrong.

I know that AOPR can handle ACCDB files, but it can newer find a password like mY61veriS042@Fe1.

Andrey Malyshev
The number of encryption keys is significantly higher than 5. The whole file is splitted to 512 Kb blocks. You know the typical size of Access database – it will be thousands of keys at least. The next key cannot be derived from the first. There is the following algorithm: 1. Calculate hash from password and salt 2. Calculate hash from the first hash and block number 3. Use 5 bytes from calculated hash as 40-bit encryption key SHA-1 hash is not reversable – so we cannot find the next encryption keys. All we can do is to search for… Read more »

Thanks guys!

BTW, I like your blog! It is informative, interesting and usefull.

Charles Parkin

I had previously purchased Elcomsoft System Recovery Professional. I now require a program to recover/hack/remove anything and everything from MS Word 2003/2007 documents.

Which product do you recommend?

Vladimir Katalov

I’d recommend Advanced Office Password Recovery — it supports all versions of Microsoft Office, all kinds of passwords. Advanced Office Password Breaker may only help for those Word 2003 files that has open password set, and use old (Office 97/2000 compatible) 40-bit encryption.


I have an encrypted docx word 2010 possibly 2013. Does any of your software decrypt this with 100% surety? I am not sure the length of the password or any of the characters.

Vladimir Katalov


Unfortunately, no. This program/method works only on files with 40-bit encryption (cteated in Office 97/2000/XP/2003).


If a series of PDF files (version 1.4) have User password and they all have the same /O string (assuming 40 bits Standard Security Handler), does it mean that all files share the same password? Even more, same User AND Owner passwords? According to PDF-1.4 specs, /O string is “based on both the owner and user passwords”, so it’s clear to me that equal strings mean equal passwords. However, the /U string is different on each file…