Hashing and encrypting are two words that are often used interchangeably, but incorrectly so.
Do you understand the difference between the two, and the situations in which you should use one over the other? In today's post I investigate the key differences between hashing and encrypting, and when each one is appropriate.
Hashing - What is it?
A hash is a string or number generated from a string of text. The resulting string or number is a fixed length, and will vary widely with small variations in input. The best hashing algorithms are designed so that it's impossible to turn a hash back into its original string.
MD5 - MD5 is the most widely known hashing function. It produces a 16-byte hash value, usually expressed as a 32 digit headecimal number. Recently a few vulnerabilities have been discovered in MD5, and rainbow tables have been published which allow people to reverse MD5 hashes made without good salts.
SHA - There are three different SHA algorithms -- SHA-0, SHA-1, and SHA-2. SHA-0 is very rarely used, as it has contained an error which was fixed with SHA-1. SHA-1 is the most commonly used SHA algorithm, and produces a 20-byte hash value.
- SHA-2 consists of a set of 6 hashing algorithms, and is considered the strongest. SHA-256 or above is recommended for situations where security is vital. SHA-256 produces 32-byte hash values.
When Should Hashing Be Used?
Hashing is an ideal way to store passwords, as hashes are inherently one-way in their nature. By storing passwords in hash format, it's very difficult for someone with access to the raw data to reverse it (assuming a strong hashing algorithm and appropriate salt has been used to generate it).
When storing a password, hash it with a salt, and then with any future login attempts, hash the password the user enters and compare it with the stored hash. If the two match up, then it's virtually certain that the user entering the password entered the right one.
Hashing is great for usage in any instance where you want to compare a value with a stored value, but can't store its plain representation for security reasons. Other use cases could be checking the last few digits of a credit card match up with user input or comparing the hash of a file you have with the hash of it stored in a database to make sure that they're both the same.
Encryption - What is it?
Encryption turns data into a series of unreadable characters, that aren't of a fixed length. The key difference between encryption and hashing is that encrypted strings can be reversed back into their original decrypted form if you have the right key.
There are two primary types of encryption, symmetric key encryption and public key encryption. In symmetric key encryption, the key to both encrypt and decrypt is exactly the same. This is what most people think of when they think of encryption.
Public key encryption by comparison has two different keys, one used to encrypt the string (the public key) and one used to decrypt it (the private key). The public key is is made available for anyone to use to encrypt messages, however only the intended recipient has access to the private key, and therefore the ability to decrypt messages.
- AES - AES is the "gold standard" when it comes to symmetric key encryption, and is recommended for most use cases, with a key size of 256 bits. Learn more about AES.
- PGP - PGP is the most popular public key encryption algorithm. Learn more about PGP.
When Should Encryption Be Used?
Encryption should only ever be used over hashing when it is a necessity to decrypt the resulting message. For example, if you were trying to send secure messages to someone on the other side of the world, you would need to use encryption rather than hashing, as the message is no use to the receiver if they cannot decrypt it.
If the raw value doesn't need to be known for the application to work correctly, then hashing should always be used instead, as it is more secure.
If you have a usecase where you have determined that encryption is necessary, you then need to choose between symmetric and public key encryption. Symmetric encryption provides improved performance, and is simpler to use, however the key needs to be known by both the person/software/system encrypting and decrypting data.
If you were communicating with someone on the other side of the world, you'd need to find a secure way to send them the key before sharing your secure messages. If you already had a secure way to send someone an encryption key, then it stands to reason you would send your secure messages via that channel too, rather than using symmetric encryption in the first place.
Many people work around this shortcoming of symmetric encryption by initially sharing an encryption key with someone using public key encryption, then symmetric encryption from that point onwards -- eliminating the challenge of sharing the key securely.