Hashing versus encryption: Decoding their role in secure networks
January 31, 2024
Whether you’re logging into your bank account or watching a viral video, most websites protect your data. And if you don’t notice their security measures, that means they’re doing a good job.
But when something does happen to your digital security — or if you just like to stay vigilant online — you’ll want to know how websites protect your information. That’s where processes like hashing and encryption enter the conversation.
Hashing and encryption both alter your data online, so if a hacker or cyber criminal finds it, they can’t actually use it for harm. This is essential when it comes to information that’s stored online, but it’s also helpful for protecting your day-to-day browsing.
While these two security processes are similar, they have different applications. Here’s our guide to hashing versus encryption, how they each work, and when you’ll encounter them.
What is hashing, and how does it work?
Hashing is a process where a hash function converts a piece of data, like a password, into a unique, fixed-length code, also known as a hash value. That way, if cyber criminals access the data, they can’t read it. Hashing’s most common use is for protecting sensitive information, such as passwords, on websites and applications.
This process is one-way, meaning it keeps the original data masked and secure the whole time. Whenever you set a password, the system stores its hash value, not the password itself. This makes sure the actual passwords remain concealed, even during a data breach.
Hashing is a common practice in any digital platform requiring secure user authentication, like password-protected accounts. But hashing algorithms extend beyond password protection. They also verify data integrity during file transfers, like when you send an email or use Apple’s AirDrop function. The algorithm compares the hash values before and after transfer to see whether anyone’s altered the file in the process.
Salting is another process that further strengthens hashing. When you create a password, the system adds random data, or “salt,” before hashing to make the codes even more indecipherable. Salting helps thwart rainbow tables — pre-computed hash databases hackers use — and dictionary attacks, where hackers guess passwords using common words.
5 common hashing algorithms
Common hashing algorithms vary when it comes to security features, and each one is tailored for specific online needs. From ensuring password safety to verifying large data sets, here are some of the most common hashing algorithms and their best applications:
Message Digest Algorithm 5 (MD5): Despite its initial popularity — particularly for file verification — MD5 has become less secure with time. It's vulnerable to collision attacks, which happen when hackers search for two different inputs with the same 128-bit hash value and alter the data without anyone noticing.
Secure Hash Algorithms (SHA) family: Developed by the National Security Agency, the SHA series includes SHA-1, SHA-256, and SHA-512. SHA-256 and SHA-512 are the most secure, thanks to their longer hash values and complexity. They’re common in securing SSL certificates and other cryptographic processes.
BLAKE3: Evolved from the BLAKE algorithm, BLAKE3 stands out for its speed and efficiency. It processes large data volumes quickly, making it ideal for tasks like file deduplication and integrity checks.
Tiger: For 64-bit systems, Tiger operates through 24 rounds of data processing to produce a 192-bit hash — meaning it’s thorough. Tiger is also known for its balance of speed and security, making it suitable for applications where data integrity is paramount.
Argon2: This algorithm won the Password Hashing Competition for resisting cryptographic attacks in 2015. Argon2 is robust against GPU cracking and side-channel attacks, making it a reliable choice for password hashing.
Most websites have already chosen which hashing algorithm to use, so you don’t have to worry about deciding for yourself. If you’re curious about which one a certain website is using — and you have access to the hash it’s created — you can use hash identifiers like this one to check.
What is encryption?
Encryption converts your original, readable data — also known as plaintext — into a coded form called ciphertext. Only those with the right “key” can decode this data, keeping it safe from unauthorized access. The main difference between this and hashing is that encryption is reversible. With hashing, you don’t return data to its original plaintext.
Here are two types of encryption:
Symmetric encryption: This form uses one key for encrypting and decrypting data. It’s fast and practical for large volumes of information. When you use a Wi-Fi password, you’re utilizing symmetric encryption, specifically Advanced Encryption Standard (AES).
Asymmetric encryption (public key encryption): This uses two keys — one is public for encrypting, and one is private for decrypting. That means it’s generally more secure than symmetric encryption, but it’s a little slower. When you send an email or use digital signatures, asymmetric encryption protects your information.
How is hashing different from encryption?
While hashing and encryption serve the same purpose, they have separate strengths and weaknesses. Here’s how they differ:
Process nature: Hashing works one way. You can't reverse or decrypt it once it turns data into a hash value. In contrast, encryption is a two-way process. It scrambles readable data (plaintext) into coded data (ciphertext) and allows you to decrypt it back to its original form with a key.
Purpose: Hashing ensures data integrity, making it a better choice for verifying information. Encryption prioritizes data confidentiality, especially when sending information across the internet, which means it’s a better choice for digital privacy during transit.
Output characteristics: Hash values always have a fixed length, no matter the input data size. For example, an eight-character password and a 20-character password might both have 128-bit hashes. Encryption produces outputs of varying lengths, depending on the input and the encryption method.
Common use cases: Hashing is great for securely storing sensitive information like passwords, where you don't need to get the original data back. Encryption is most common in securing data when transferring it, such as in emails or online file storage.
When to use hashing and encryption
Here’s a guide to when a website should use hashing or encryption to protect data:
Hashing for data integrity
Hashing is most common when you need to ensure data remains unchanged, like verifying files or passwords. Hash examples like SHA and MD5 are perfect for this because they create unique hash values for the original data, protecting information while keeping it distinct.
If the data changes, so does the hash value, which means it’s easy to tell if someone tampered with it. This is especially important in situations where keeping the data accurate matters more than keeping it secret. For example, in online banking, hashing checks that the transaction details you send are the ones the bank receives.
Encryption for data confidentiality
Encryption algorithms, both symmetric (like AES) and asymmetric (like RSA), are best for when confidentiality is vital. Websites and software should always encrypt sensitive data, such as personal information or financial records — especially when sending it from place to place online. Not only is encrypted data unreadable, but nobody can decrypt it without a key, making it extra secure.
Combining both for enhanced security
While each process is strong on its own, combining hashing and encryption makes for the most robust security framework. Many websites use both at the same time or at different stages of data security. For example, storing user passwords involves hashing the password and encrypting the hash value itself for an added layer of protection.
Making the right choice in data security
Hashing and encryption each play their specific role in the digital security ecosystem — and they do it well. But knowing how each one works can help you understand how websites protect your personal and professional information.
For extra confidence, use a digital security super app like IronVest. It uses
256-bit AES encryption to keep your data safe, along with advanced features like biometric authentication, decentralized personal data storage, decentralized biometric protection, and masked emails and phone numbers. You’ll navigate every website with more peace of mind.