What is hashing: How this cryptographic process protects passwords

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What is hashing?

Hashing is a cryptographic process that can be used to validate the authenticity and integrity of various types of input. It is widely used in authentication systems to avoid storing plaintext passwords in databases, but is also used to validate files, documents and other types of data. Incorrect use of hashing functions can lead to serious data breaches, but not using hashing to secure sensitive data in the first place is even worse.

Hashing versus encryption

Hashing is a one-way cryptographic function while encryption is designed to work both ways. Encryption algorithms take input and a secret key and generate a random looking output called a ciphertext. This operation is reversible. Anyone who knows or obtains the secret key can decrypt the ciphertext and read the original input.

Hashing functions are not reversible. The output of a hashing function is a fixed-length string of characters called a hash value, digest or simply a hash. These are not necessarily intended to be kept secret because they cannot be converted back into their original values. However, one important property of a hashing function is that when hashed, a unique input must always result in the same hash value. If two different inputs can have the same hash value, it is called a collision and, depending how easy it is computationally to find such a collision, the hash function can be considered broken from a security point of view.

Hashing is almost always preferable to encryption when storing passwords inside databases because in the event of a compromise attackers won’t get access to the plaintext passwords and there’s no reason for the website to ever know the user’s plaintext password. If you’ve ever received those notices that “our representatives will never ask for your password” from various companies, that’s part of the reason why they won’t: They have no use for it because they don’t have your password. They have a non-reversible cryptographic representation of your password—its hash value.

That said, companies who suffer security breaches often misuse the term “encryption” in their public disclosures and advise customers that their passwords are secure because they were encrypted. This is probably because the general audience is not very familiar with the meaning of hashing, so their PR departments want to avoid confusion. It makes it hard for outside observers to assess the risks associated with a breach, however, because if the passwords were truly encrypted then the risk is higher than if they were hashed and the next question should be: Was the encryption key also compromised? Cases of encryption being used instead of hashing for passwords do happen.

In 2013, Adobe suffered a security breach that resulted in information from millions of accounts being stolen, including encrypted passwords. Adobe had updated most of its systems to use hashing, but the breached server was a backup one the company planned to de-commission and that stored passwords encrypted with the Triple DES cipher in ECB mode. While the attackers didn’t obtain the decryption key, the use of this cipher in ECB mode is known to leak information, allowing brute-force attacks to recover a significant number of passwords.

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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