All one needs to know about hashing algorithms

hashing algorithms

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen more people working from home than ever before. As a result, the same number of machines on which an enterprise’s data is present has increased. Most of the time, all this data is only kept secure by credentials, that is, generally speaking, a username and password. However, what about the information about these credentials? How secure are they? If they aren’t secure, how can one secure them? This is where hashing algorithms come in.

Password protection

The truth is that most organizations don’t save these credentials very well. They are saved in a sort of table on a digital database. And this table is accessed by a program whenever someone attempts to log in to check if the usernames and passwords entered by the user match the saved information. At the most basic level, this information is stored in ‘readable data is stored in the clear,” which in simple language means that anyone with access to this table can read all the usernames and passwords.

Hashing algorithm offers a superior alternative. It is a fundamental part of cryptography. It refers to chopping the sensitive data into numerous smaller, mixed-up pieces and thus make it difficult for the end-user to go back to the original text. A hash function is an algorithm that generates a fixed-length result, also known as a hash value, from specific input data. It is thus different from encryption.

In encryption, one converts plain text to encrypted text, and then, with the help of decryption, the encrypted text can be brought back to the original plain text using the original encryption key. 

In hashing algorithm, on the other, plain text is converted into a hashed text through a cryptographic hash function, thus making it difficult for hackers to make sense of it. Yet there is no encryption key. In other words, there is no good way of un-hashing this information.

Hashing algorithms are used to secure passwords. Thus the server saves the user passwords in hashed form. When a user tries to log in, the password they entered too is hashed and then matched with a saved hashed entry from the table. If it is a perfect match, the login is permitted.

What are its other uses?

Password storage is not the only place where hashtag algorithms are used. The other uses include digital signatures, integrity checks, message authentication codes, fingerprinting, checksums, file transfers, etc. 

What makes it more secure?

The following characteristics of the hashtag algorithm make it such a secure option:

  • Suppose a hacker was to access such a table with hashed passwords saved on it; they still won’t be able to log in using these hashed passwords. 
  • Such a hacker can’t look for a decryption key either, as none such exists. There is simply no way to get back to the original password using the hash information.

How can one make hash algorithms more secure?

Not all hash algorithms are equally secure. When developing a hash algorithm, one should keep the following tips in mind.

  • The hash algorithm should use what is called the avalanche effect. Even a small change in the input password will return a totally different hashtag. So there is no way of knowing to guess how nearly one guessed the password.
  • Hash functions should be fast to compute the hash, not taking more than a few seconds. This is necessary to ensure a good user experience when they log in.
  • Hash function outputs shouldn’t have any collision, that is, for there should be a unique output for any given input.
  • Hash functions should be deterministic. The output of one input must always be the same, no matter what. 
  • Further measures such as salting and Runtime Application Self-Protection (RASP) should also be deployed (see below) to make the hash algorithm extra secure.

Thus, to put it briefly, a hash algorithm should produce a unique one and only one output for a given input within seconds. And even a slight variation in the input should create a totally different result.

What are some of Hashing Algorithm’s Security Limitations?

Hashing algorithms aren’t without their limitations.

  • It is not immune to brute force attacks by the hackers where they try multiple login attempts with different passwords till a match is found.
  • Simple passwords like ‘123456’, ‘Iloveyou,’ ‘qwerty,’ ‘qwerty123’, ‘password’ etc. can be used to figure out hash information.
  • The Rainbow table attack is another attack the hashtag algorithm is vulnerable to. It uses a large database of precomputed hash chains for cracking common passwords. 

How can one fight these limitations of hashing algorithms?

One can fight the above-mentioned limitations of salting algorithms by using the following techniques:

  • One can resist rainbow table attacks by salting technique. Salting adds further complexity to the hashed value to make it more difficult to crack the password. It does so by adding random data to the input of a hash function to generate a much more complex output. The rainbow attack mainly works on unsalted hash values, so salting is a good development practice.
  • Runtime Application Self-Protection (RASP) is another modern technique that detects attacks on an application in real-time. It needs limited human intervention and uses a smart analysis of contextual behavior of applications to ensure that better security is guaranteed. So, when any kind of suspicious activity is detected, Runtime Application Self-Protection (RASP) would terminate a session or provide the relevant alerts to the user in question for further actions. And they also have an advantage over firewalls that just look at an application superficially.

The Bottom Line

Technology is improving every day and hackers and programmers are forever racing against each other. One trying to exploit vulnerabilities, the other trying to secure them. A hashing algorithm is a key tool for the hands-on developers, which can act as a powerful shield for much of their sensitive data in the form of digital signatures, passwords, files being transferred, etc., particularly if used with other good development practices like salting and Runtime Application Self-Protection (RASP). One can easily deploy it in one’s system to make such information more secure. The services like Appsealing can help one in this regard as well as in making one’s system secure in all other ways.

By Michael Caine

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