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Chapter: Cryptography and Network Security Principles and Practice : Cryptographic Data Integrity Algorithms : Cryptographic Hash Functions

Applications of Cryptographic Hash Functions

Perhaps the most versatile cryptographic algorithm is the cryptographic hash function. It is used in a wide variety of security applications and Internet protocols.


Perhaps the most versatile cryptographic algorithm is the cryptographic hash function. It is used in a wide variety of security applications and Internet protocols. To better understand some of the requirements and security implications for cryptographic hash functions, it is useful to look at the range of applications in which it is employed.


Message Authentication

Message authentication is a mechanism or service used to verify the integrity of a message. Message authentication assures that data received are exactly as sent (i.e., contain no modification, insertion, deletion, or replay). In many cases, there is a requirement that the authentication mechanism assures that purported identity  of the sender is valid. When a hash function is used to provide message authenti- cation, the hash function value is often referred to as a message digest.

Figure 11.2 illustrates a variety of ways in which a hash code can be used to provide message authentication, as follows.


a.                                    The message plus concatenated hash code is encrypted using symmetric encryption. Because only A and B share the secret key, the message must have come from A and has not been altered. The hash code provides the structure or redundancy required to achieve authentication. Because encryption is applied to the entire message plus hash code, confidentiality is also provided.

b.                                    Only the hash code is encrypted, using symmetric encryption. This reduces the processing burden for those applications that do not require confidentiality.

It is possible to use a hash function but no encryption for message authentication. The technique assumes that the two communicating parties share a common secret value S.A computes the hash value over the concatenation of M and S and appends the resulting hash value to M. Because B possesses S, it can recompute the hash value to verify. Because the secret value itself is not sent, an opponent cannot modify an intercepted message and cannot generate a false message.

c.                      Confidentiality can be added to the approach of method (c) by encrypting the entire message plus the hash code.


When confidentiality is not required, method (b) has an advantage over methods

(a)        and (d), which encrypts the entire message, in that less computation is required. Nevertheless, there has been growing interest in techniques that avoid encryption (Figure 11.2c). Several reasons for this interest are pointed out in [TSUD92].


               Encryption software is relatively slow. Even though the amount of data to be encrypted per message is small, there may be a steady stream of messages into and out of a system.

               Encryption hardware costs are not negligible. Low-cost chip implementations of DES are available, but the cost adds up if all nodes in a network must have this capability.

               Encryption hardware is optimized toward large data sizes. For small blocks of data, a high proportion of the time is spent in initialization/invocation overhead.

               Encryption algorithms may be covered by patents, and there is a cost associated with licensing their use.

More commonly, message authentication is achieved using a message authentica- tion code (MAC), also known as a keyed hash function. Typically, MACs are used between two parties that share a secret key to authenticate information exchanged between those parties. A MAC function takes as input a secret key and a data block and produces a hash value, referred to as the MAC. This can then be transmitted with or stored with the protected message. If the integrity of the message needs to be checked, the MAC function can be applied to the message and the result compared with the stored MAC value. An attacker who alters the message will be unable to alter the MAC value without knowledge of the secret key. Note that the verifying party also knows who the sending party is because no one else knows the secret key.

Note that the combination of hashing and encryption results in an overall function that is, in fact, a MAC (Figure 11.2b). That is, E(K, H(M)) is a function of a variable-length message M and a secret key K, and it produces a fixed-size output that is secure against an opponent who does not know the secret key. In practice, specific MAC algorithms are designed that are generally more efficient than an encryption algorithm.

We discuss MACs in Chapter  12.


Digital Signatures

Another important application, which is similar to the message authentication application, is the digital signature. The operation of the digital signature is similar to that of the MAC. In the case of the digital signature, the hash value of a message is encrypted with a user’s private key. Anyone who knows the user’s public key can verify the integrity of the message that is associated with the digital signature. In this case, an attacker who wishes to alter the message would need to know the user’s private key. As we shall see in Chapter 14, the implications of digital signatures go beyond just message authentication.

Figure 11.3 illustrates, in a simplified fashion, how a hash code is used to provide a digital signature.

a.                                     The hash code is encrypted, using public-key encryption with the sender’s pri- vate key. As with Figure 11.2b, this provides authentication. It also provides a digital signature, because only the sender could have produced the encrypted hash code. In fact, this is the essence of the digital signature technique.

b.                                     If confidentiality as well as a digital signature is desired, then the message plus the private-key-encrypted hash code can be encrypted using a symmetric secret key. This is a common technique.


Other Applications

Hash functions are commonly used to create a one-way password file. Chapter 20 explains a scheme in which a hash of a password is stored by an operating system rather than the password itself. Thus, the actual password is not retrievable by a hacker who gains access to the password file. In simple terms, when a user enters a password, the hash of that password is compared to the stored hash value for verification. This approach to password protection is used by most operating systems.

Hash functions can be used for intrusion detection and virus detection. Store H(F) for each file on a system and secure the hash values (e.g., on a CD-R that  is

kept secure). One can later determine if a file has been modified by recomputing H(F). An intruder would need to change F without changing H(F).

A cryptographic hash function can be used to construct a pseudorandom func- tion (PRF) or a pseudorandom number generator (PRNG). A common application for a hash-based PRF is for the generation of symmetric keys. We discuss this appli- cation in Chapter 12.

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