No doubt if you are at least a little bit curious about security, you’ll have heard of AES, the advanced encryption standard. Way back in 1997, when winters were really hard, our modems froze as we used them and Windows 98 had yet to appear, NIST saw the need to replace the then mainstream Data Encryption Standard with something resistant to the advances in cryptography that had occurred since its inception. So, NIST announced a competition and invited interested parties to submit algorithms matching the desired specification – the AES Process was underway.
A number of algorithms with varying designs were submitted for the process and three rounds held, with comments, cryptanalysis and feedback submitted at each stage. Between rounds, designers could tweak their algorithms if needed to address minor concerns; clearly broken algorithms did not progress. This was somewhat of a first for the crypto community – after the export restrictions and the so called “crypto wars” of the 90s, open cryptanalysis of published algorithms was novel, and it worked. We ended up with AES (and some of you may also have used Serpent, or Twofish) as a result.
Now, onto hashing. Way back in 1996, discussions were underway in the cryptographic community on the possibility of finding a collision within MD5. Practically MD5 started to be commonly exploited in 2005 to create fake certificate authorities. More recently, the FLAME malware used MD5 collisions to bypass Windows signature restrictions. Indeed, we covered this attack right here on the security blog.
The need for new hash functions has been known for some time, therefore. To replace MD5, SHA-1 was released. However, like its predecessor, cryptanalysis began to reveal that its collision resistance required a less-than-bruteforce search. Given that this eventually yields practical exploits that undermine cryptographic systems, a hash standard is needed that is resistant to finding collisions.
As of 2001, we have also had available to us SHA-2, a family of functions that as yet has survived cryptanalysis. However, SHA-2 is similar in design to its predecessor, SHA-1, and one might deduce that similar weaknesses may hold.
So, in response and in a similar vein to the AES process, NIST launched the SHA3 competition in 2007, in their words, in response to recent improvements in cryptanalysis of hash functions. Over the past few years, various algorithms have been analyzed and the number of candidates reduced, much like a reality TV show (perhaps without the tears, though). The final round algorithms essentially became the candidates for SHA3.
The big event this year is that Keccak has been announced as the SHA-3 hash standard. Before we go too much further, we should clarify some parts of the NIST process. Depending on the round an algorithm has reached determines the amount of cryptanalysis it will have received – the longer a function stays in the competition, the more analysis it faces. The report of round two candidates does not reveal any suggestion of breakage; however, NIST has selected its final round candidates based on a combination of performance factors and safety margins. Respected cryptographer Bruce Schneier even suggested that perhaps NIST should consider adopting several of the finalist functions as suitable.
That’s the background, so I am sure you are wondering: how does this affect me? Well, here’s what you should take into consideration:
- MD5 is broken. You should not use it; it has been used in practical exploits in the wild, if reports are to be believed – and even if they are not, there are alternatives.
- SHA-1 is shown to be theoretically weaker than expected. It is possible it may become practical to exploit it. As such, it would be prudent to migrate to a better hash function.
- In spite of concerns, the family of SHA-2 functions has thus far survived cryptanalysis. These are fine for current usage.
- Keccak and selected other SHA-3 finalists will likely become available in mainstream cryptographic libraries soon. SHA-3 is approved by NIST, so it is fine for current usage.
Liked this question of the week? Interested in reading it or adding an answer? See the question in full. Have questions of a security nature of your own? Security expert and want to help others? Come and join us at security.stackexchange.com.