Is MD5 less secure than SHA et. al. in a practical sense


I've seen a few questions and answers on SO suggesting that MD5 is less secure than something like SHA.

My question is, Is this worth worrying about in my situation?

Here's an example of how I'm using it:

  1. On the client side, I'm providing a "secure" checksum for a message by appending the current time and a password and then hashing it using MD5. So: MD5(message+time+password).
  2. On the server side, I'm checking this hash against the message that's sent using my knowledge of the time it was sent and the client's password.

In this example, am I really better off using SHA instead of MD5?

In what circumstances would the choice of hashing function really matter in a practical sense?


Just to clarify – in my example, is there any benefit moving to an SHA algorithm?

In other words, is it feasible in this example for someone to send a message and a correct hash without knowing the shared password?

More Edits:

Apologies for repeated editing – I wasn't being clear with what I was asking.

Best Solution

Yes, it is worth worrying about in practice. MD5 is so badly broken that researchers have been able to forge fake certificates that matched a real certificate signed by a certificate authority. This meant that they were able to create their own fake certificate authority, and thus could impersonate any bank or business they felt like with browsers completely trusting them.

Now, this took them a lot of time and effort using a cluster of PlayStation 3s, and several weeks to find an appropriate collision. But once broken, a hash algorithm only gets worse, never better. If you care at all about security, it would be better to choose an unbroken hash algorithm, such as one of the SHA-2 family (SHA-1 has also been weakened, though not broken as badly as MD5 is).

edit: The technique used in the link that I provided you involved being able to choose two arbitrary message prefixes and a common suffix, from which it could generate for each prefix a block of data that could be inserted between that prefix and the common suffix, to produce a message with the same MD5 sum as the message constructed from the other prefix. I cannot think of a way in which this particular vulnerability could be exploited in the situation you describe, and in general, using a secure has for message authentication is more resistant to attack than using it for digital signatures, but I can think of a few vulnerabilities you need to watch out for, which are mostly independent of the hash you choose.

  1. As described, your algorithm involves storing the password in plain text on the server. This means that you are vulnerable to any information disclosure attacks that may be able to discover passwords on the server. You may think that if an attacker can access your database then the game is up, but your users would probably prefer if even if your server is compromised, that their passwords not be. Because of the proliferation of passwords online, many users use the same or similar passwords across services. Furthermore, information disclosure attacks may be possible even in cases when code execution or privilege escalation attacks are not.

    You can mitigate this attack by storing the password on your server hashed with a random salt; you store the pair <salt,hash(password+salt)> on the server, and send the salt to the client so that it can compute hash(password+salt) to use in place of the password in the protocol you mention. This does not protect you from the next attack, however.

  2. If an attacker can sniff a message sent from the client, he can do an offline dictionary attack against the client's password. Most users have passwords with fairly low entropy, and a good dictionary of a few hundred thousand existing passwords plus some time randomly permuting them could make finding a password given the information an attacker has from sniffing a message pretty easy.

  3. The technique you propose does not authenticate the server. I don't know if this is a web app that you are talking about, but if it is, then someone who can perform a DNS hijack attack, or DHCP hijacking on an unsecure wireless network, or anything of the sort, can just do a man-in-the-middle attack in which they collect passwords in clear text from your clients.

  4. While the current attack against MD5 may not work against the protocol you describe, MD5 has been severely compromised, and a hash will only ever get weaker, never stronger. Do you want to bet that you will find out about new attacks that could be used against you and will have time to upgrade hash algorithms before your attackers have a chance to exploit it? It would probably be easier to start with something that is currently stronger than MD5, to reduce your chances of having to deal with MD5 being broken further.

Now, if you're just doing this to make sure no one forges a message from another user on a forum or something, then sure, it's unlikely that anyone will put the time and effort in to break the protocol that you described. If someone really wanted to impersonate someone else, they could probably just create a new user name that has a 0 in place of a O or something even more similar using Unicode, and not even bother with trying to forge message and break hash algorithms.

If this is being used for something where the security really matters, then don't invent your own authentication system. Just use TLS/SSL. One of the fundamental rules of cryptography is not to invent your own. And then even for the case of the forum where it probably doesn't matter all that much, won't it be easier to just use something that's proven off the shelf than rolling your own?

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