Confidentiality and integrity (together with availability) are the cornerstones of every cybersecurity program. When discussing these important principles, two technologies are used interchangeably, hashing and encryption. They both look indistinguishable but are dissimilar from each other. Hashing emphasizes the integrity of the information, while encryption focuses on the confidentiality of the data.
Differences Between Hashing and Encryption
Even though both of these methods transform data into a distinct format, there are subtle differences between their conversion mechanisms and areas of use.
Hashing is used to validate the integrity of the information by identifying any modifications and subsequent alterations to the hash output. Encryption encodes data with the primary goal of preserving data privacy and security. The conversion of encrypted text to plain text requires a private key.
Encryption is a bidirectional process in which plaintext data is input and output as unreadable ciphertext. Since encryption is bidirectional, the data can be decrypted and made readable once more. In contrast, hashing is one-way, meaning that the plaintext is transformed into a unique digest that cannot be deciphered using a salt. Technically, hashing can be reversed, but the computer resources required to decrypt it make it impractical.
The following table provides a comparison of the two fundamental security techniques.
When to use hashing
Using a hash function, hashing is the act of transforming any data of arbitrary size to a fixed-length result. This value is referred to as a hash value, hash code, digest, checksum, or simply hash.
Computers utilize hashing in two primary areas:
- To determine the integrity of a file or message during transmission over an open network. For example, Alice can send Bob a file together with the hash value and the original message. Bob can then calculate the received file's hash value. A match between the two hash values tells Bob that the file integrity is intact.
- A second application of hashing is hash tables. A hash table is a data structure that stores data using the hash value as the table index and the original data as the value.
The following are the most used hashing algorithms:
Message Digest Algorithm (MD5)
After discovering major security flaws in MD4, MD5 was developed as an improved version of MD4. MD5 produces 128-bit outputs for inputs of varied lengths. As the successor to MD4, it addressed a variety of security risks but was unable to offer comprehensive data security services. Even though MD5 is widely utilized, its fragility and collisions are the main concerns highlighted about its use.
Secure Hashing Algorithm (SHA-1, SHA-2, SHA-3)
The Secure Hashing Algorithm (SHA) is a modified version of MD5, created by the NSA and used to hash data and certificates. When addressing SHA forms, multiple distinct SHA types are mentioned. SHA-1, SHA-2, SHA-256, SHA-512, SHA-224, and SHA-384 are examples of SHA names.
SHA-1 was the first secure hashing algorithm and generated 160-bit hash digests. The other bigger values, such as SHA-256, are simply SHA-2 variations with different bit lengths. SHA-2 can generate a range of bit widths from 256 to 512 bits, allowing it to generate hash digests with entirely unique values.
Since 2005, experts have recognized that the initial SHA-1 certificate was susceptible to assault. In 2011, the NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) officially deprecated SHA-1 in response to growing concerns. Google and the Dutch research institute CWI revealed in February 2017 that they have successfully cracked SHA-1 in practice using a simulated collision attack. This discovery highlights the risks of SHA-1 and the urgent need for websites to transition to SHA-2 or SHA-3 immediately.
Vincent Rijmen and Paul Barreto devised the WHIRLPOOL algorithm, which evaluates any message shorter than 2256 bits and provides a 512-bit message digest in return. Whirlpool-0 is the name of the initial version, Whirlpool-T is the name of the second version, and Whirlpool is the name of the most recent version.
Even if there are no documented security flaws in earlier versions of Whirlpool, the most recent revision has improved hardware implementation efficiency and is likely more secure. Whirlpool is the version adopted by the international standard ISO/IEC 10118-3.
Tiger cipher method was developed by Ross Anderson and Eli Biham for 64-bit platforms in 1995. In comparison to the MD5 and SHA families, it is a more efficient and faster algorithm. It has a 192-bit hashing scheme and may also be utilized on 32-bit systems, but at a reduced rate. Tiger2 is a superior variant of this algorithm. Tiger has no patents or usage restrictions.
Encryption is the technique of encrypting plaintext and other data that can only be viewed by the authorized party with the decryption key. It will prevent fraudsters from accessing your sensitive info. It is the most efficient method for securing data in modern communication systems. For the recipient to be able to read an encrypted message, they must possess a decryption password or security key. Unencrypted data is referred to as plain text, while encrypted data is referred to as cipher text.
When to encrypt data
The primary purpose of encryption is to prevent unauthorized individuals from reading or obtaining information from a message that was not meant for them. Encryption increases the security of message transmission over the Internet or any other network.
Encrypting data serves primarily to safeguard confidentiality while data is either at rest – stored on a computer system or in the cloud – or in transit – transmitted over a network. Authentication, data integrity, and non-repudiation are three of the most important security aspects provided by modern data encryption techniques.
The authentication feature enables the origin of a message to be verified. The integrity function assures that the content of a message has not been altered since it was sent. In addition, non-repudiation ensures that the sender of a message cannot deny delivering it. Because of these features, encryption is a key requirement across all security and privacy regulations and legislation, including HIPAA, PCI DSS, GDPR, and others.
Encoding vs encryption
Encryption and encoding are frequently interchanged and wrongly used terminology. Encoding is the process of transforming data into a format that may be utilized by a variety of system types. If a person knows the algorithm used to encode the data, it is simple to decode the data into a readable format. Unlike encryption, it does not require a key to decode the information. The most common encoding algorithms are ASCII, UNICODE, URL Encoding, and Base64.
Encoding prioritizes data accessibility over confidentiality, which is the primary objective of encryption. The primary purpose of encoding is to convert data so that it can be utilized by a different sort of system. It is not used to protect data since, unlike encryption, it is simple to reverse.
Challenges of encryption
Although encryption algorithms offer protection for the data, it is frequently the target of several attacks. The mishandling of related cryptographic keys is a primary cause of these attacks. Attackers are infiltrating systems and networks using stolen or compromised keys to intercept authorized communications and steal sensitive data.
With the potential of quantum computing and the threat to current encryption techniques, a large number of criminals are compromising and storing encrypted data for future use.
Side-channel is a prominent attack method. This form of attack targets implementation characteristics, such as power usage, rather than the encryption itself. If there is a flaw in system design or implementation, these assaults are likely to succeed.
How does encryption work?
During the data encryption process, pertinent data is encrypted using an encryption algorithm and an encryption key. This procedure yields ciphertext, which can only be viewed in its original form when decoded using the proper key. There are two primary types of encryptions based on the key type: symmetric encryption and asymmetric encryption.
Symmetric encryption encrypts and decrypts data using the same secret key. The primary advantage of this type is that it is far faster than asymmetric encryption. The disadvantage is that the sender must exchange the encryption key with the recipient so that the recipient can decrypt the message.
Organizations have adapted to employ an asymmetric method to exchange the secret session key and a symmetric technique to encrypt data to reduce the added burden of securely exchanging the secret key.
The most common symmetric encryption algorithms are the following:
Advanced Encryption Standard (AES)
AES is a symmetric encryption that encrypts 128 bits of data in one go. The key used to decrypt the data can have various sizes, such as 128 bits, 192 bits, or 256 bits. The 128-bit key encrypts data in 10 rounds, the 192-bit key in 12 steps, and the 256-bit key in 14 steps. AES has demonstrated its efficiency and dependability over the past few years. Numerous companies employ this method of encryption for both stored data and information exchanged between communication parties.
Blowfish is a variable-length, symmetric, 64-bit block cipher. It was designed by Bruce Schneier in 1993 as a "general-purpose algorithm," and was to provide a fast and free alternative to the aging Data Encryption Standard (DES) encryption algorithm. Blowfish is significantly faster than DES, however, it couldn't completely replace DES due to its small block size, which is considered insecure.
Twofish, the successor of Blowfish, addressed the security problem with a larger block size of 128 bits. This encryption algorithm is optimized for 32-bit central processing units and is ideal for both hardware and software environments. It is open source (unlicensed), unpatented and freely available for use. Twofish also includes advanced functionalities to replace the Data Encryption Standard (DES) algorithm.
Rivest Cipher (RC4)
Rivest Cipher 4, or RC4, is a stream cipher developed for RSA Security in 1987 by Ron Rivest. Stream ciphers are a type of cipher that encrypt data one byte at a time. RC4 is one of the most popular stream ciphers, used in SSL/TLS protocols, IEEE 802.11 wireless LAN standard, and Wi-Fi Security Protocol WEP (Wireless Equivalent Protocol). RC4's popularity in relation to stream ciphers is due to its usability and performance speed. Due to significant flaws, RC4 is no longer used as frequently as it once was.
Data Encryption Standard (DES)
Data Encryption Standard is an algorithm with a symmetric key for encrypting digital data. Although its 56-bit key length renders it insecure for modern applications, it has had a significant impact on the development of cryptography. To prevent the compromise of the algorithm, double DES and triple DES were developed, which are significantly more secure than the original DES due to the use of 112-bit and 168-bit keys, respectively.
In 3DES, the DES algorithm is executed three times with three keys, but it is only considered secure when three distinct keys are employed. According to the standards, after a period of public deliberation, 3DES will be deprecated for all new applications, and its use will be prohibited after 2023.
This type of encryption is also known as public-key cryptography. This is because the encryption process uses two distinct keys, one public and one private. The public key, as its name suggests, may be shared with anyone, whereas the private key must be kept confidential.
The most common asymmetric encryption algorithms are the following:
Elliptic Curve Digital Signature Algorithm (ECDSA)
ECDSA, or Elliptic Curve Digital Signature Algorithm, is one of the more complex encryption algorithms for public key cryptography. Elliptic curve cryptography generates keys that are smaller than the average keys generated by digital signature algorithms. ECDSA uses the algebraic structure of elliptic curves over finite fields. The primary applications of elliptic curve cryptography include the generation of pseudo-random numbers, digital signatures, and more. ECDSA performs the same function as other digital signatures, but more effectively. This is because ECDSA uses smaller keys to achieve the same level of security as other digital signature algorithms.
The Rivest-Shamir-Adleman (RSA) algorithm is a widely used asymmetric encryption algorithm found in a variety of products and services. The technical details of RSA are based on the idea that it is simple to generate a number by multiplying two sufficiently large numbers, but it is extremely difficult to factor that number back into the original prime numbers. One of the two numbers used to generate the public and private key is the product of two large prime numbers. Both are calculated using the same two prime numbers. RSA keys are typically 1024 or 2048 bits in length, making them extremely difficult to factorize, although it is believed that 1024 bit keys will soon be breakable.
Diffie-Hellman Key Exchange
Diffie-Hellman key exchange, also called an exponential key exchange, is a method of digital encryption that uses numbers raised to specific powers to produce decryption keys on the basis of components that are never directly transmitted, making the task of an intended code breaker mathematically overwhelming. Diffie–Hellman key exchange establishes a shared secret between two parties that can be used for secret communication for exchanging data over a public network and actually uses public-key techniques to allow the exchange of a private encryption key.
Pretty Good Privacy (PGP)
PGP was a popular program used to encrypt and decrypt email over the internet, authenticate messages with digital signatures, and encrypt files. PGP is now commonly used to refer to any encryption application or program that implements the OpenPGP public key cryptography standard.
Managing Machine Identities
Every machine in a modern enterprise digital environment has a machine identity, from computers and mobile devices to servers and network infrastructure. Without adequate authentication management, the increasing number of machine interactions inherent to digitized processes poses a significant threat to the survival of a business. How does this relate to encryption and hashing? With the aid of cryptographic keys and digital certificates, these systems can determine the veracity of a given interaction.
Machines must be authenticated to communicate securely with other machines. A machine identification is significantly more than a digital ID number or a simple identifier such as a serial number or part number. It is a collection of authenticated credentials that confirm access to online services or a network by a system or user. A computer is unable to enter a username and password. Instead, they employ a set of credentials better suited to highly automated and interconnected environments. Digital certificates and keys are used to establish the identity of machines.
To implement a Zero Trust security model based on the concept "Trust No, Always Verify," machine identities must be validated. Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) certificates and cryptographic key pairs can be used to strengthen verification and secure connections between non-firewalled entities.
Machine identity management is a broad term that encompasses numerous technologies such as SSH key management, SSL/TLS certificate management, etc. Realizing the significance of a machine identity management program requires comprehension of the program's objectives:
- Safeguard machine identities
- Keep up with the rapid development of machines.
- Spread cloud-based secure machines
- Protect the identity of Internet of Things (IoT) devices
To learn more about how your organization can protect and effectively manage machine identities, explore the Venafi Control Plane for Machine Identities.