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What Are Hashes and What Are They Used For?

Aug 9, 2016

Hashes, “digests,” are the products of cryptographic algorithms. If you’re not sure what an algorithm is, be sure to check out our article on what they are and how they work.

In short, though, they’re a set of instructions used by computers to manipulate data. Many hash functions are designed to produce a fixed-length digest, regardless of the size of the input data.

Take a look at the above chart and you’ll see that both “Fox” and “The red fox jumps over the blue dog” yield the same length output.

Another factor is complexity. Compare the second example in the above chart to the third, fourth, and fifth. You’ll see that despite a very minor change in the input data, the resulting hashes are all very different from one another. This is a sign of complexity of the algorithm (at least to our non-programmer eyes) and helps make it so that working backwards from the hash to the data is very difficult. Passwords are often stored as hashes because of this reason; it’s easy to take the password during a login attempt and compare it to the stored hash.

On the the other hand, if someone has the hash, it’s very difficult to work backwards to the original input. When people try to crack passwords, they usually don’t work backwards, but instead use a dictionary of known hashes (usually of common passwords and key patterns) to compare the stolen ones with.