To establish a hashing encryption, make sure you settle on a strong hashing algorithm with a miniscule chance of collision. Your hashing algorithm will then create multi-bit numerical codes that correspond to the characters in your data. Hash functions use innovative means to create outputs from data entries using division, addition, numerical base changes, and digit rearrangement.
Common hashing algorithms include:
- MD5 (Message-digest 5): Perhaps the most commonly-used hashing algorithm. The output is a 128-bit value, generally in the form of 32 hexadecimal digits. Although MD5 remains widely popular, attackers have increasingly been able to reverse MD5 outputs, meaning you will have to be vigilant about protecting sensitive MD5 data.
- SHA-2 (Secure Hash Algorithm 2): A family of hashing algorithms with outputs of 256 or 512 bits, which are more commonly shortened to 224 and 384 bits, respectively.
- SHA-3 (Secure Hash Algorithm 3): A relatively new family of algorithms published in 2015, which use permutation-based algorithms instead of hash functions. This adds complexity, unpredictability, and collision resistance to the output hash.
To retrieve a hashed item, use your hashing algorithm to generate the key for your desired item, then compare your key to your database until you find a match.
What’s the Difference Between Hashing and Encryption?
As we have now established, hashing is a one-way process—the input is essentially numericized and scrambled using an algorithm you can reexamine to retrieve your input data. It’s considered “one-way” because, even with the proper algorithm, you can’t unscramble output to recreate input. At best, an unscrambled hash could tell you numerical (but not semantic) features of your words. That’s why password encryption often employs hashing. An attacker can’t recreate a hashed password even if they gain access to the hashing algorithm.
Encryption, on the other hand, is a two-way process. Data encryption uses a variety of strategies to encode input based on numerical, digital, and semantic characteristics. In crypto-jargon, data is known as plaintext before it is encrypted, and ciphertext after it is encrypted. Like hashing, encryption uses algorithms to create foolproof codes for sensitive data—but encryption also allows for multi-party access because its ciphertext can be reconverted to plaintext by anyone with the right key.
For increased security, ciphertext encryption uses a key. The key is a unique variable which any entity wishing to access the encrypted data must know. This adds another layer of protection for your sensitive data. For example, if a bad actor intercepts your data, they would remain unable to determine the plaintext without knowing the key.
How Does Encryption Work?
Like hashing, encryption uses an algorithm to encode its plaintext. The major difference is the encryption algorithm integrates a key to decipher your code. There are two types of encryption algorithms, also known as ciphers: symmetric ciphers and asymmetric ciphers.
Symmetric ciphers are standard ciphers that use a single key and require the key to access the encrypted data. Without the key variable, even someone with a perfect understanding of the encryption algorithm would be unable to decipher your message. Common symmetric ciphers include:
- AES (Advanced Encryption Standard), a ubiquitous 256-bit symmetric cipher
- Twofish, another popular 256-bit symmetric cipher
An asymmetric cipher shares many similarities with a symmetric cipher, except it uses two keys linked through their own encryption system. This makes asymmetric ciphers particularly difficult for attackers to decipher. On the other hand, asymmetric ciphers are also more time-consuming for the intended recipient to decipher.
Common asymmetric ciphers include:
- PGP (Pretty Good Privacy), a popular 128-bit asymmetric cipher
- RSA (Rivest-Shamir-Adleman), a popular 1,024- to 4,096-bit asymmetric cipher
Protecting Your Algorithms from Attackers
Hashing and encryption can both dramatically increase the safety of your data, but neither is entirely impervious to attack. The potential threats to hashing algorithms and encryption algorithms take different forms, but any MSP should remain vigilant about the ways in which cryptographic criminals could access encrypted data. To make the most of hashing and encryption, MSPs should know how to deter attackers when they pounce.
For hashing algorithms and encryption algorithms alike, attackers can implement a brute-force attack. This is the simple process of attempting every possible variation of hash or key until the attacker finds the correct one. As one might expect, brute-force attacks can be quite time consuming, even with automatic key generating programs.
To employ a less time-consuming method, attackers can gain access to hashing algorithms with a tool called a rainbow table. The nature of hashing will make it almost impossible for attackers to recreate your original dataset with the hashing algorithm. Nevertheless, malignant actors can use rainbow tables with a precomputed chain of reduction functions to derive an original password or data entry from a hashed dataset. To prevent rainbow table attackers, you can “salt” your hashing algorithms—a process by which you insert a random data point into your function to deter attacks.
To access encryption algorithms, attackers often use side-channel attacks—attacks which don’t actually damage the encryption algorithm, but instead analyze other details of your data transmission to gain knowledge about your encryption process. Cryptanalytic attackers can also access your data by intercepting the key transfer or gaining access to your decrypted plaintext to derive the key. To prevent cryptanalytic attackers, ensure you’re safely storing all data, safely transferring your key, and that your encryption algorithm is complex enough to prevent side-channel attacks.
Encryption vs. Hashing: Which is More Secure?
After learning the difference between hashing and encryption, many people may be wondering—why use encryption at all if hashing makes input data inaccessible while encryption could allow an attacker with a key to access the plaintext? Encryption and hashing both help to maintain the privacy, security, and authenticity of your data.
In this way, encryption offers generally the same benefits as hashing. While it’s true the best hash algorithm is probably more difficult to crack than the best encryption algorithm, encryption is necessary. For transmitting data and for making private data available to multiple privileged parties, hashing won’t work. Hashing, on the other hand, is more useful for storing and retrieving data, like passwords. These distinct purposes make it critically important for MSPs to know the differences between hashing and encryption, and to understand the helpful ways in which each of these processes can strengthen security for their MSP—and their customers.
For more information on encryption techniques and technologies, read through our related blog articles.