An Illustrated Guide to Cryptographic Hashes

    Date13 Mar 2005
    CategoryCryptography
    8916
    Posted ByBrittany Day
    With the recent news of weaknesses in some common security algorithms (MD4, MD5, SHA-0), many are wondering exactly what these things are: They form the underpinning of much of our electronic infrastructure, and in this Guide we'll try to give an overview of what they are and how to understand them in the context of the recent developments.But note: though we're fairly strong on security issues, we are not crypto experts. We've done our best to assemble (digest?) the best available information into this Guide, but we welcome being pointed to the errors of our ways.


    A "hash" (also called a "digest", and informally a "checksum") is a kind of "signature" for a stream of data that represents the contents. The closest real-life analog we can think is "a tamper-evident seal on a software package": if you open the box (change the file), it's detected.

    Let's first see some examples of hashes at work.

    Many Unix and Linux systems provide the md5sum program, which reads a stream of data and produces a fixed, 128-bit number that summarizes that stream using the popular "MD5" method. Here, the "streams of data" are "files"
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