# Cryptographic Hashing Functions

## What is a hashing function?

A hashing function is a one-way function that takes some input and returns a deterministic output. The output is often referred to as a digest, a hash code, or simply a hash.

Hashing functions have many uses in software. In essence, they are a tool for taking input of arbitrary length and producing a fixed length output. They are used in hash tables to provide constant time lookup. In caching, they are often used to detect changes in data. In cryptography we’re most interested in a few properties:

- Deterministic - the same input always returns the same output. This is important because we need to know that we can trust the output of the function.
- Fast - they can be computed relatively quickly (although, in many applications, such as password hashing, slowness can be a desirable trait).
- One-way - it is infeasible to reproduce the input given the output. This maintains privacy of the original input, making it impossible to retrieve, for instance, and private key that was passed into the function.
- Chaotic - a small change in the input will produce an output so different that it is impossible to correlate the two by looking at outputs alone. This makes it difficult — if not impossible — to make deductions about the input based on a series of outputs.
- Unique - it is infeasible to find two inputs that produce the same output.

## Why do I need one?

In cryptography, hashing functions are often used as message authentication code (MAC). A MAC is used to check the authenticity of the message (i.e. where the message came from). MACs that are produced by a hashing function are often referred to as HMACs.

Let’s look at an example using a MAC. We’ll send the following message.

```
{ "message": "Give $10 to Bob" }
```

If an attacker were to intercept the message, they could change it in flight.

```
{ "message": "Give $1000 to Bob" }
// or
{ "message": "Give $10 to Eve" }
```

To prevent this we can try appending a MAC that we calculate using some hashing function.

```
mac(message) = hash(message)
```

We take the output of the MAC function and append it to the message.

```
{ "message": "Give $10 to Bob", mac: "12345" }
```

The receiver can calculate the MAC for the given message using the same hashing function, and confirm that it matches what was sent. But now, the attacker just has to modify the mac and the message will look legitimate.

```
{ "message": "Give $10 to Eve", mac: "6789" }
```

To prevent this, we can add a secret when we calculate the MAC. The addition of a shared secret makes this function an HMAC.

```
hmac(secret, message) = hash(secret + message)
```

The sender will hash the message together with the secret to produce an HMAC, and then the receiver will verify that they can calculate the same HMAC using the same key when they receive the message.

```
// secret = "puppies"
{ "message": "Give $10 to Bob", hmac: "28573" }
```

Unless the attacker knows the secret, it will be incredibly difficult to contrive a message that matches the given MAC (see property 5).

```
// secret = ??? - idk let's try 'password'
{ "message": "Give $100 to Eve", hmac: "56184" }
```

This practice of authenticating a message using an HMAC is used in places where it is difficult to determine if an incoming request should be trusted. Notably, OAuth 1 uses a hashing algorithm and pre-shared keys to generate a hash on each request.

Please note that, while this may seem like a simple security scheme to implement, there are multiple subtle ways in which naive implementations can be exploited. **Always use crypto code that has been built and vetted by security experts.**

Many languages' standard libraries contain implementations of HMAC algorithms. For instance, the .Net framework has a class called HMACSHA256 under the `System.Security.Cryptography`

namespace. This algorithm uses the SHA-2 256 algorithm to compute an HMAC.

Another usage of hashing algorithms is in password verification, but that’s another blog post.

## How do they work?

Let’s imagine a simplistic hashing function.

```
LENGTH_HASH(x) = LENGTH(x)
```

That is, given some input `x`

, we’re going to return the length of the input in bytes. Consider property 5: uniqueness. With this simplistic hashing function, many inputs produce the same output.

```
LENGTH_HASH('puppies') = 7
LENGTH_HASH('kittens') = 7
```

Depending on our use case, this might be good enough, but it’s not really a hashing function. Let’s consider something a little more complex.

```
SUM_HASH(x) =
LET sum = 0
FOR c IN x
sum += c
RETURN sum
```

Let’s say that our input is restricted to uppercase alphabet characters, with characters assigned values starting at 1 (i.e. `A=1`

, `B=2`

, …). Using `SUM_HASH`

we get output more varied than we got previously.

```
SUM_HASH('ABC') = 1 + 2 + 3 = 6
SUM_HASH('BCD') = 2 + 3 + 4 = 9
```

We’ve improved our output a bit. But what if we transpose some of the characters?

```
SUM_HASH('ABC') = 6
SUM_HASH('CBA') = 6
```

Oops, we got collisions again. Remember, we’re going for unique output, so this slightly less naive hashing function isn’t going to cut it, either.

We also want to make it difficult to figure out the input given the output. While it’s non-trivial, we can deduce a lot about the input given its sum. If we assume that all letters are equally likely, then we expect that the value of the average character is 13 (median of the range 1-26). If we have a value around 1300, we could make a deduction that the original input was about 100 characters long. That might not seem like a lot of information if you’re doing it by hand, but if you can prioritize what strings your cracking algorithm is going to try first based on length, you might save a lot of time.

This solution isn’t very chaotic either. If I change my input from `ABC`

to `ABD`

, the input changes from 6 to 7. If I hash `ABE`

, I get 8. I’m seeing a trend here….

So in summary, our `SUM_HASH`

algorithm gets a 2/5. It is deterministic, and fast. Unfortunately, the remaining three properties are important enough that we can’t use it for cryptography.

Clearly, this is an area where it is better to lean on the experts. Devising a cryptographic hashing function is a difficult process involving mathematics far beyond the abilities of the average software engineer. I remind you again,
**always use crypto code that has been built and vetted by security experts.**

## Which algorithm should I use?

If in doubt, go for the SHA-2 family of hashing algorithms. SHA-2 comes in six different variants, but choosing one mostly boils down to how long you would like the hash to be. SHA-2 256 produces a 256-bit digest, while SHA-2 512 produces – you guessed it – a 512-bit digest. There are also 224- and 384-bit variants. SHA-2 has the advantage of having been around for a while (first published in 2001), so there is wide support for it, and that age implies a certain level of battle-hardening.

SHA-3 is the up-and-coming hashing algorithm. It was published in 2015, so it’s not as widely supported. However, SHA-3 is a NIST standard, so its security characteristics are well understood and should be safe for production use.

You should avoid using MD5 and SHA-1 for cryptographic uses. These algorithms have well-known vulnerabilities that disqualify them for use in secure scenarios.