DES has never been ``broken'', despite the efforts of many researchers
over many years. The obvious method of attack is brute-force exhaustive
search of the key space; this takes 255 steps on average. Early on
it was suggested that a rich and powerful enemy could build a
special-purpose computer capable of breaking DES by exhaustive search
in a reasonable amount of time. Later, Hellman showed a time-memory
trade-off that allows improvement over exhaustive search if memory
space is plentiful, after an exhaustive precomputation. These ideas
fostered doubts about the security of DES. There were also accusations
that the NSA had intentionally weakened DES. Despite these suspicions,
no feasible way to break DES faster than exhaustive search was
discovered. The cost of a specialized computer to perform exhaustive
search has been estimated by Wiener at one million dollars.
Just recently, however, the first attack on DES that is better than
exhaustive search was announced by Eli Biham and Adi Shamir, using a
new technique known as differential cryptanalysis. This attack requires
encryption of 247 chosen plaintexts, i.e., plaintexts chosen by the
attacker. Although a theoretical breakthrough, this attack is not
practical under normal circumstances because it requires the attacker
to have easy access to the DES device in order to encrypt the chosen
plaintexts. Another attack, known as linear cryptanalysis, does not
require chosen plaintexts.
The consensus is that DES, when used properly, is secure against all but the most powerful enemies. In fact, triple encryption DES (see Question 3.5.3) may be secure against anyone at all. Biham and Shamir have stated that they consider DES secure. It is used extensively in a wide variety of cryptographic systems, and in fact, most implementations of public-key cryptography include DES at some level.