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SSL certificates and MD5 collisions

SSL certificates and MD5 collisions

Posted Jan 18, 2009 23:30 UTC (Sun) by djao (guest, #4263)
In reply to: SSL certificates and MD5 collisions by jd
Parent article: SSL certificates and MD5 collisions

It's important to note that the Wikipedia page specifically says that using two hash functions in case one is broken is a valid use.

This is true, and I addressed this exact issue in my previous reply, although perhaps the manner in which I addressed it was too oblique.

I will start with your usage of the word "broken". What does it mean for a hash function to be "broken"? The image that frequently comes to mind is that of a total break, the sort of break where one can generate almost arbitrary collisions with trivial effort. If you are worried about your hash functions suffering a total break, then, yes, two hashes have some advantages over one hash.

The problem is that the stereotypical portrayal of a total break is not something that happens very often in real life, at least not with the more popular hash functions. More often, what happens is that a hash function is broken in some sort of incremental manner, in which the hash can be broken marginally more easily than brute force, but the attack is not effective enough to be considered totally trivial. In such a situation, a single long hash provides much much more of a safety margin than two short hashes. It is important to realize that a long hash, like SHA-256 (which is of course 256 bits), has to be much more thoroughly broken than a short hash before attacks on the long hash become practical. To give a concrete example: SHA-1, which is 160 bits, is nowadays considered marginally broken. The best known attack on SHA-1 requires 2^63 computations. This represents a factor of 2^17 speedup compared to brute force, which sounds bad, until you observe that the theoretical optimum for a 128-bit hash function (such as MD5) is 2^64 computations. In other words, even the so-called "broken" SHA-1 still has the same security as what we thought MD5 used to have before MD5 was broken. This is the kind of thing that a longer hash function does for you: it provides a safety margin, just by virtue of being longer.

It is instructive to compare SHA-1 with MD5 and SHA-256. A hypothetical 2^17 speedup in attacking MD5 leads to MD5 being broken (which is in fact more or less what happened to MD5), and a hypothetical 2^17 speedup in attacking SHA-256 would be a purely theoretical result.

The reason I'm replying at length is because people often don't realize that the safety margin provided by simply using a longer hash function is extremely large and very likely to be more valuable than the relatively minor safety margin provided by using two short hashes, due to the observed fact that many many more hash functions suffer partial breaks than total breaks.

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