6.3 Choosing a Cryptographic Hash Algorithm

6.3.1 Problem

You need to use a hash algorithm for some purpose (often as a parameter to a MAC), and you want to understand the important concerns so you can determine which algorithm best suits your needs.

6.3.2 Solution

Security requirements should be your utmost concern. SHA1 is a generally a good compromise for those in need of efficiency. We recommend that you do not use the popular favorite MD5, particularly in new applications.

Note that outside the context of a well-designed MAC, it is difficult to use a cryptographic hash function securely, as we discuss in Recipe 6.5 through Recipe 6.8.

6.3.3 Discussion

A secure message digest function (or one-way hash function) should have the following properties:

One-wayness

If given an arbitrary hash value, it should be computationally infeasible to find a plaintext value that generated that hash value.

Noncorrelation

It should also be computationally infeasible to find out anything about the original plaintext value; the input bits and output bits should not be correlated.

Weak collision resistance

If given a plaintext value and the corresponding hash value, it should be computationally infeasible to find a second plaintext value that gives the same hash value.

Strong collision resistance

It should be computationally infeasible to find two arbitrary inputs that give the same hash value.

Partial collision resistance

It should be computationally infeasible to find two arbitrary inputs that give two hashes that differ only by a few bits. The difficulty of finding partial collisions of size n should, in the worst case, be about as difficult as brute-forcing a symmetric key of length n/2.

Unfortunately, there are cryptographic hash functions that have been found to be broken with regard to one or more of the above properties. MD4 is one example that is still in use today, despite its insecurity. MD5 is worrisome as well. No full break of MD5 has been published, but there is a well-known problem with a very significant component of MD5, resulting in very low trust in the security of MD5. Most cryptographers recommend against using it in any new applications. In addition, because MD5 was broken a long time ago, in 1995, it's a strong possibility that a government or some other entity has a full break that is not being shared.

For the time being, it's not unreasonable to use MD5 in legacy applications and in some applications where the ability to break MD5 buys little to nothing (don't try to be the judge of this yourself!), but do realize that you might need to replace MD5 entirely in the short term.

The strength of a good hash function differs depending on the circumstances of its use. When given a known hash value, finding an input that produces that hash value should have no attack much better than brute force. In that case, the effective strength of the hash algorithm will usually be related to the length of the algorithm's output. That is, the strength of a strong hash algorithm against such an attack should be roughly equivalent to the strength of an excellent block cipher with keys of that length.

However, hash algorithms are much better at protecting against attacks against the one-wayness of the function than they are at protecting against attacks on the strong collision resistance. Basically, if the application in question requires the strong collision resistance property, the algorithm will generally have its effective strength halved in terms of number of bits. That is, SHA1, which has a 160-bit output, would have the equivalent of 80 bits of security, when this property is required.

It can be quite difficult to determine whether an application that uses hash functions really does need the strong collision resistance property. Basically, it is best to assume that you always need it, then figure out if your design somehow provides it. Generally, that will be the case if you use a hash function in a component of a MAC that requires a nonce, and not true otherwise (however, see Recipe 6.8).

As a result, you should consider MD5 to have, at best, 64 bits of strength. In fact, considering the weaknesses inherent in MD5, you should assume that, in practice, MD5's strength is less than that. 64 bits of security is on the borderline of what is breakable. (It may or may not be possible for entities with enough resources to brute-force 64 bits in a reasonable time frame.)

Table 6-1 lists popular cryptographic hash functions and compares important properties of those functions. Note that the two MDC-2 constructs we detail are covered by patent restrictions until August 28, 2004, but everything else in this list is widely believed to be patent-free.

When comparing speeds, times were measured in x86 cycles per byte processed (lower numbers are better), though results will vary slightly from place to place. Implementations used for speed testing were either the default OpenSSL implementation (when available); the implementation in this book using OpenSSL versions of the underlying cryptographic primitives; or, when neither of those two were available, a reference implementation from the Web (in particular, for the last three SHA algorithms). In many cases, implementations of each algorithm exist that are more efficient, but we believe that our testing strategy should give you a reasonable idea of relative speeds between algorithms.

Table 6-1. Cryptographic hash functions and their properties

Algorithm

Digest size

Security confidence

Small message speed (64 bytes), in cycles per byte[2]

Large message speed (8K), in cycles per byte

Uses block cipher

Davies-Meyer-AES-128

128 bits (same length as cipher block size)

Good

46.7 cpb

57.8 cpb

Yes

MD2

128 bits

Good to low

392 cpb

184 cpb

No

MD4

128 bits

Insecure

32 cpb

5.8 cpb

No

MD5

128 bits

Very low, may be insecure

40.9 cpb

7.7 cpb

No

MDC-2-AES-128

256 bits

Very high

93 cpb

116 cpb

Yes

MDC-2-DES

128 bits

Good

444 cpb

444 cpb

Yes

RIPEMD-160

160 bits

High

62.2 cpb

20.6 cpb

No

SHA1

160 bits

High

53 cpb

15.9 cpb

No

SHA-256

256 bits

Very high

119 cpb

116 cpb

No

SHA-384

384 bits

Very high

171 cpb

166 cpb

No

SHA-512

512 bits

Very high

171 cpb

166 cpb

No

[2] All timing values are best cases based on our empirical testing, and assume that the data being processed is already in cache. Do not expect that you'll quite be able to match these speeds in practice.

Let's look briefly at the pros and cons of using these functions.

Davies-Meyer

This function is one way of turning block ciphers into one-way hash functions (Matyas-Meyer-Oseas is a similar technique that is also commonly seen). This technique does not thwart birthday attacks without additional measures, and it's therefore an inappropriate construct to use with most block ciphers because most ciphers have 64-bit blocks. AES is a good choice for this construct, though 64 bits of resistance to birthday attacks is somewhat liberal. While we believe this to be adequate for the time being, it's good to be forward-thinking and require something with at least 80 bits of resistance against a birthday attack. If you use Davies-Meyer with a nonce, it offers sufficient security. We show how to implement Davies-Meyer in Recipe 6.15.

MD2

MD2 (Message Digest 2 from Ron Rivest[3]) isn't used in many situations. It is optimized for 16-bit platforms and runs slowly everywhere else. It also hasn't seen much scrutiny, has an internal structure now known to be weak, and has a small digest size. For these reasons, we strongly suggest that you use other alternatives if at all possible.

[3] MD1 was never public, nor was MD3.

MD4, MD5

As we mentioned, MD4 (Message Digest 4 from Ron Rivest) is still used in some applications, but it is quite broken and should not be used, while MD5 should be avoided as well, because its internal structure is known to be quite weak. This doesn't necessarily amount to a practical attack, but cryptographers do not recommend the algorithm for new applications because there probably is a practical attack waiting to be found.

MDC-2

MDC-2 is a way of improving Matyas-Meyer-Oseas to give an output that offers twice as many bits of security (i.e., the digest is two blocks wide). This clearly imposes a speed hit over Matyas-Meyer-Oseas, but it avoids the need for a nonce. Generally, when people say "MDC-2," they're talking about a DES-based implementation. We show how to implement MDC-2-AES in Recipe 6.16.

RIPEMD-160, SHA1

RIPEMD-160 and SHA1 are both well-regarded hash functions with reasonable performance characteristics. SHA1 is a bit more widely used, partially because it is faster, and partially because the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has standardized it. While there is no known attack better than a birthday attack against either of these algorithms, RIPEMD-160 is generally regarded as having a somewhat more conservative design, but SHA1 has seen more study.

SHA-256, SHA-384, SHA-512

After the announcement of AES, NIST moved to standardize hash algorithms that, when considering the birthday attack, offer comparable levels of security to AES-128, AES-192, and AES-256. The result was SHA-256, SHA-384, and SHA-512. SHA-384 is merely SHA-512 with a truncated digest value, and it therefore isn't very interesting in and of itself.

These algorithms are designed in a very conservative manner, and therefore their speed is closer to that expected from a block cipher than that expected from a traditional cryptographic message digest function. Clearly, if birthday-style attacks are not an issue (usually due to proper use of nonce), then AES-256 and SHA-256 offer equivalent security margins, making SHA-384 and SHA-512 overkill. In such a scenario, SHA1 is an excellent algorithm to pair with AES-128. In practice, a nonce is a good idea, and we therefore recommend AES-128 and SHA1 when you want to use a block cipher and a separate message digest algorithm. Note also that performance numbers for SHA-384 and SHA-512 would improve on a platform with native 64-bit operations.

The cryptographic hash function constructs based on block ciphers not only tend to run more slowly than dedicated functions, but also they rely on assumptions that are a bit unusual. In particular, these constructions demand that the underlying cipher resist related-key attacks, which are relatively unstudied compared with traditional attacks. On the other hand, dedicated hash functions have received a whole lot less scrutiny from the cryptanalysts in the world?assuming that SHA1 acts like a pseudo-random function (or close to it) is about as dicey.

In practice, if you really need to use a one-way hash function, we believe that SHA1 is suitable for almost all needs, particularly if you are savvy about thwarting birthday attacks and collision attacks on the block cipher (see Recipe 5.3). If you're using AES with 128-bit keys, SHA1 makes a reasonable pairing. However, if you ever feel the need to use stronger key sizes (which is quite unnecessary for the foreseeable future), you should also switch to SHA-256.

6.3.4 See Also

Recipe 5.3, Recipe 6.5-Recipe 6.8, Recipe 6.15, Recipe 6.16