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MD5 is a cryptographic hash function which takes an input and returns a fixed-size bit string, known as the hash. This hash, otherwise known as the message digest, is an encoded form of the input, often called the message. The message digest is not designed to be decrypted, as with data encrypted on flash drives for secure transport or encoded data transmissions. Instead, this type of encryption is a one way process and is often used to check that one input matches a previous input – if they match they will both produce the same message digest, if they don’t match, they will produce different message digests.
MD5 and other hash algorithms are commonly used for password storage and verification. A benefit of using this type of encryption is that even if the password store is accessed, the passwords cannot be decrypted. When a password needs to be verified, the input is hashed and the message digest is presented to be matched against the password in the store.
MD5 Hashes are also used to ensure validity of files and software, especially when they are being transferred over public networks. Transmitted files are checked by comparing a hash created before transmission to one created after transmission to ensure the contents of the file has remained intact and unchanged.
MD5 is no longer considered as particularly secure as the hash function has been severely compromised. In order for the hash to be considered as cracked, an attacker needs to be able to provide an input to the algorithm that will generate a hash which matches that of the hash he is trying to crack. If the attacker had access to a password database, for example, these strings could then be used as valid passwords, as the validation message digest would match, fooling the system into thinking the correct password had been entered. An attack known as a collision attack now exists that can find such strings in a matter of seconds using only a basic desktop computer.
Due to a flaw in the MD5 hash function, MD5 is no longer considered to be suitable for applications that require collision resistance; that being the ability of a hash function to make it hard to discover two inputs that will result in the same output. As such cryptographers now recommend using more secure hash algorithms for such applications such as SHA hashing. Nonetheless, MD5 is still widely used as a method for hashing passwords in internet applications and in many other applications where collision resistance is desirable.