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Hashing vs Encryption — Simplifying the Differences

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Think that hashing and encryption are the same? Think again

Ah, yes, hashing vs encryption. For those of you who have no idea as to what hashing or encryption is, it’s pretty much like a blank paper that we’ll fill in for you momentarily. But for those of you who have a vague understanding of either hashing or encryption, you may still have some confusion as to whether hashing and encryption are the same thing or if they’re two different processes.

A lot of people use the two terms interchangeably, but that’s incorrect. So, if you’re one of them, sorry to burst the bubble, but hashing and encryption are two different (but related) things. The biggest difference between them? Encryption is reversible — hashing is not.

In this post, we explain the key differences between hashing vs encryption — or encryption vs hashing, if you’d prefer —and where each is used.

Breaking Down Hashing vs Encryption: What is Hashing?

When we talk about hashing, we’re talking about a one-way process that uses an algorithm to take data and convert it to a fixed length known as a hash value (also known as a hash digest). The length of the hash generated is usually fixed and smaller than the original text or string; though it varies widely with even the smallest variations in input. It is almost humanly impossible to revert a good hashing digest back to its original form.

There are different hashing algorithms used in hashing. Here are some of the most important ones:

MD5: MD5 used to be the most popular hash algorithm which converted a 16-byte hash value to a 32-bit hexadecimal number. It has been deprecated from use because of vulnerabilities found in it, but it can still be used as a checksum to verify data integrity only against unintentional corruption.

SHA-0: SHA-0 is the first SHA algorithm of the three groups of SHA algorithms. SHA-0 has been deprecated from use thanks to its susceptibilities. This algorithm was soon replaced by the SHA-1 algorithm.

SHA-1: SHA-1 is the successor of the SHA-0 and became the most widely adopted algorithm of the SHA family. It produces a 160-bit (20-byte) hash value known as a message digest — typically rendered as a hexadecimal number that’s 40 digits long. However, it was found to be insecure and since 2010, many organizations recommended its replacement with SHA-2 algorithms. In 2017, all major browsers deprecated the use of SHA-1.

SHA-2: After being deemed insecure by major platforms, SHA-2 replaced SHA-1 and became the most widely adopted hashing algorithm. It might be carrying the family name but SHA-2 is significantly different from its predecessor. The SHA-2 family consists of six hash functions — SHA-224, SHA-256, SHA-384, SHA-512, SHA-512/224, SHA-512/256 — with digests (hash values) that are 224, 256, 384 or 512 bits

Uses of Hashing:

Unlike encryption, hashing serves as a checksum to ensure that a particular piece of data or a file hasn’t been altered.

  • Hashing is the most suitable way to securely store passwords. By storing passwords in a good hash format, it’s almost impossible for anyone to access your raw data.
  • Hashing is helpful in comparing a value with a stored value, hence avoiding duplication. This can be done by storing the hash with a salt, and then with any future login attempts, hash the passwords that the users enter and compare it with the stored hash.
  • Hashing is used in a variety of digital certificates, including SSL certificates.
  • Hashing helps you find specific data in a huge database.
  • Hashing algorithms are used like a digital certificate in cryptographic applications.

Breaking Down Hashing vs Encryption: So, What is Encryption?

Encryption is the process of turning a data into a series of unreadable characters which are not of a fixed length. The key difference between encryption and hashing lies in the fact that in case of encryption, the unreadable data can be decrypted to display the original plaintext data with the help of the right key, whereas in hashing, this cannot be done at all.

Encryption of data is done through the use of cryptographic keys. The data is encrypted before it’s transmitted and decrypted by the user. Based on the nature of the keys, encryption can be done in two ways — namely, symmetric encryption and asymmetric encryption.

  • Symmetric Encryption: In case of symmetric encryption, the keys used for both encryption and decryption are the same. That is, the data can be encrypted and decrypted using the same cryptographic key.
  • Asymmetric Encryption: In this case, the keys used for encryption and decryption are different. The key used for encryption is known as the public key, whereas the key used for decryption is the private key. As the name suggest, public key is known to every user that visits the website, whereas the private key is only available to the intended recipient or party.

Uses of Encryption

At its core, encryption is all about asserting identity and protecting data integrity:

  • The origin of encrypted messages can be traced, thus facilitating authentication of the message source.
  • In case the data gets leaked, it’s easy to trace the source. In other words, it’s easy to trace who did it and when, thus making auditing for accountability easy. It helps in resolving security breaches efficiently.
  • As the name suggests, encryption encrypts a data in such a way that only intended parties with the right private key can read the data or find the information in the data.
  • Encrypted messages cannot be exchanged or read by another person — it can only be read by the intended recipient.

Hashing vs Encryption — An Overview

The data so hashed into an unreadable string cannot be reverted back into a string of readable characters. The encrypted data can be decrypted and converted into a string of readable characters (plaintext information) with the help of cryptographic keys.
The unreadable characters are of a fixed length. The unreadable characters are not of a fixed length.
There is no use of keys in hashing. Encryption is done with the help of keys. In case of symmetric encryption, only public keys are used. In asymmetric encryption, both public and private keys are used.

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