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Home / Blog / Advanced SSL / What Is SHA-256 Algorithm & How It Works
What Is SHA-256 Algorithm & How It Works
Last updated on February 20th, 2024 by Dionisie Gitlan
SHA-256 Algorithm
A common specification of all SSL certificates, irrespective of brand, price, and type, is the SHA-256 algorithm. You will see a mention of it in the certificate’s details or the features listed on the product’s information. For non-techies, SHA-256 is usually a complete mystery.
In this article, we want to show you what is SHA-256 and how it works, without going too much into technical jargon and the math behind it.
Table of Contents
What Is Hashing?
What Is the SHA-256 Algorithm?
SHA-256 Explained
SHA-256 Algorithm’s Key Features
Is SHA-256 Secure?
How Does SHA-256 Work?
What Is SHA-256 Used For?
SHA Algorithms History
To understand the SHA-256 algorithm, we need to explain hashing first.
What Is Hashing?
Hashing is the process of transforming any given information into another value. Essentially, it contains blocks of data, which are transformed into a short fixed-length key or value from the original string. It involves running the data through a mathematical function that converts it into a unique and complex series of characters.
Hashing provides a secure and efficient way to verify data integrity. When you hash a piece of data, you can compare the resulting hash to a known or expected value to ensure the data has not been tampered with or corrupted. If the hash values match, you can be confident that the data has not been altered or modified since it was originally hashed.
One of the benefits of hashing is that it’s irreversible. You can’t use the hash value to retrieve the original data. This property makes hashing useful for password storage, as it allows you to store a hash of a password rather than the password itself. When a user enters their password, the system can hash and compare it to the stored hash value to verify that it’s correct without needing the actual password.
What Is the SHA-256 Algorithm?
SHA-256 is a cryptographic hash function that generates a fixed-size, 256-bit (32-byte) hash value. The purpose of the SHA-256 algorithm is to create a unique digital fingerprint of a piece of data, such as a message or a file.
SHA-256 refers to a cryptographic hashing algorithm where the input data is processed through a sophisticated mathematical function, resulting in a distinct output hash. This hash acts as a digital fingerprint, uniquely representing the original data.
SHA-256 Explained
SHA-256, an acronym for Secure Hash Algorithm 256-bit, is a member of the SHA-2 cryptographic hash functions designed by the NSA. It is commonly used in various security applications (such as digital signatures, password authentication, and blockchain technology) and protocols, including TLS and SSL, PGP, SSH, IPsec, and more.
SHA-256 is designed to be a one-way function, meaning that it’s practically impossible to reverse-engineer the original input from its hash output. This attribute makes it an essential tool for verifying data integrity, as any change to the input data, even a single character, results in a dramatically different hash value.
How Does SHA-256 Work?
SHA-256 operates by taking an input (often a string of text or data) and processing it through a series of mathematical operations. The algorithm divides the input into blocks of 512 bits, each processed in 64 rounds of operations. These operations include bitwise logical functions such as AND, OR, XOR, as well as addition and bitwise rotation.
Let’s see a real example of how hashing works. Say you write the message “I love apples” and apply an SHA-256 hash function to it. Here’s what you’ll get:
40b7df43f24bea395b2c0c3c9d48a3db4db631fa396dd0dd8fe7dc64c9de6f6d
Now, let’s add an exclamation mark at the end of your message so it looks like this: “I love apples!” and generate an output. The result may surprise you:
1751c183f35ed15c2977e5ae7e439fdca79eeae28527ece6efc1a24e4388096f
As you can see, with just one additional character, the output is completely different but the length remains the same. Whether you write a word or an essay, the hash value will be identical, hiding the size of the original input.
If you were to send this message to a friend, you would provide the hash value and specify the algorithm. Your friend would generate the hash on their end, and if it matches, they’ll know that the message is genuine.
Now let’s look at the technical side.
SHA-256 Algorithm Key Features
The key features of the SHA-256 algorithm are message length, digest length, and irreversibility.
Message Length: The length of the plaintext (the readable text before it is encrypted) should be less than 264 bits.
Digest Length: The hash digest (the result of applying a cryptographic hash function to data) length should be 256 bits. When installing an SSL certificate on your server, you may select SHA-512 and bigger digests. While SHA-512 is more secure, it’s not recommended for most systems, as it requires more calculations and computer power.
Irreversibility: All hash functions such as the SHA-256 are irreversible by design. For each input, you have exactly one output, but not the other way around. Multiple inputs produce the same output. The output has a fixed size, but the input doesn’t have size restrictions.
Is SHA-256 Secure?
While no cryptographic algorithm is immune to attacks, the SHA-256 algorithm has passed extensive analysis and the test of time to remain an essential element in securing digital data.
SHA-256 security uses a combination of complex mathematical and bitwise operations to generate the hash value.
This design makes it extremely difficult to find two inputs that produce the same hash. However, the security of SHA-256 depends on the correct implementation and strength of the security protocols used in the application that utilizes it.
Is SHA-256 Secure
One weakness of the SHA-256 algorithm is the possibility of a collision attack. It occurs when two different inputs produce the same hash value. While this is highly unlikely with SHA-256, as it generates a 256-bit hash value (i.e., multiple possible outputs), it is still theoretically possible. If a collision attack were to be successful, it could compromise the application that relies on the SHA-256 hash values to verify data integrity.
What Are the Steps in SHA-256 Algorithm?
As you already know, SHA-256 takes the input data and processes it through a series of mathematical operations called rounds. Each round consists of several steps, including data preprocessing, message expansion, and message compression function.
Here are the main steps in the SHA-256 algorithm:
Data Preprocessing: The input data is padded and extended to ensure it’s a multiple of 512 bits in length by adding a one-bit followed by zeros and then appending the length of the original message in bits.
Message Expansion: The 512-bit input block is divided into 16 32-bit words, and then expanded into 64 32-bit words through a series of logical operations.
Message Compression: The expanded 64-word message block is then processed through a series of 64 rounds, each of which involves several steps:
– Determine the round constant: Each round has a unique 32-bit constant value generated based on the position in the sequence.
– Calculate the message schedule: A 64-entry message schedule is generated based on the 64-word message block and the round constant.
– Update the working variables: The working variables, which are 8 32-bit words that store intermediate values during the hashing process, are updated based on the message schedule and a set of logical operations.
– Calculate the hash value: After all 64 rounds have been completed, the final values of the working variables are combined to produce the 256-bit hash value.
The output of the SHA-256 hash algorithm is a 256-bit final hash value that serves as a digital fingerprint of the input data.
What Is SHA-256 Used For?
SHA-256 is the standard hashing algorithm for digital signature verification, SSL handshake, password protection, and a host of other security-related operations.
Digital signature verification. A digital signature is a type of electronic signature used to validate the authenticity and integrity of a message (e.g., an email, a credit card transaction, or a digital document). It’s created by hashing the file and using PKI (Public Key Infrastructure) to encrypt it.
The SHA-256 hash algorithm’s role in the whole process is to ensure the integrity of the digital signature. The recipient’s client checks the hashing algorithm on its end and uses the public key to decrypt the message. If it matches, the data is authentic and unchanged.
SSL handshake. The SSL handshake is a crucial element of web browsing sessions, and it relies on SHA-256 compatibility and functions. Communications over SS/TLS always begin with the SSL handshake which is asymmetric cryptography that allows the browser to verify the web server, get the public key, and establish a secure connection before the beginning of the data transfer.
Password protection. Websites store user passwords in a hashed format. As already discussed, secure password hashing turns them into a short string of letters and/or numbers using an encryption algorithm. If a website is hacked, cyber attackers don’t get access to hashed passwords.
Blockchain transactions verification. The SHA-256 hash algorithm is the first algorithm that was used with a cryptocurrency when Bitcoin was created. Block headers are an essential element of blockchains, as they help to chain/connect one block of transactions to the next in a specific order. SHA-256 hash ensures that no previous blocks are changed without tampering with the new block’s header.
SHA Algorithms History
Secure cryptographic hash algorithms are the creation of the National Security Agency (NSA). The United States Government patented the technology and then released it under a royalty-free license for everyone to use.
The first SHA-0 algorithm dates back to 1993. Its successor, SHA-1, arrived in 1995, and despite being cracked, it’s still in use today on older servers and clients. Six years later, in 2001, the NSA published the SHA -2 family of hashing algorithms which includes SHA-256 and other five hash functions:
SHA 224
SHA 384
SHA 512
SHA 512/224
SHA 512/256
On August 5, 2015, the NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) released SHA -3, the latest secure hash algorithm with a different internal algorithm design. While NIST does not currently plan to withdraw the SHA-2 algorithm, SHA-3 can replace it in current applications if necessary.
According to SSL Pulse, the global dashboard for monitoring the quality of SSL / TLS support, based on Alexa’s list of the most popular sites in the world, 97.2% use the SHA-256 algorithm.
Final Words
The SHA-256 hash algorithm is integral to data protection on the Web. In this article, we scratched only its surface without diving deeper into the math and the functions behind it. Even so, you now have a general understanding of the algorithm’s purpose and use.
Until we build a quantum computer with enough power to crack complex hash functions, SHA-256 will remain the industry-standard hashing algorithm for data and file integrity. We’re still a few decades away from such a scenario, so for the time being, SHA-256 will be a part of encryption and authentication protocols.
Frequently Asked Questions
How Long Is SHA-256 Hash?
What Is an SHA-256 Fingerprint?
How to Decrypt SHA-256?
Why Is SHA-256 Irreversible?
What Is an SHA-256 Certificate?
Who Created SHA-256?
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Written by Dionisie Gitlan
Experienced content writer specializing in SSL Certificates. Transforming intricate cybersecurity topics into clear, engaging content. Contribute to improving digital security through impactful narratives.
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CRIPTOGRAFIA
MAII - FIB
The cryptographic hash function SHA-256
General description
SHA-256 (secure hash algorithm, FIPS 182-2) is a cryptographic hash function with digest length of 256
bits. It is a keyless hash function; that is, an MDC (Manipulation Detection Code).
A message is processed by blocks of 512 = 16 × 32 bits, each block requiring 64 rounds.
Basic operations
• Boolean operations AND, XOR and OR, denoted by ∧, ⊕ and ∨, respectively.
• Bitwise complement, denoted by ¯.
• Integer addition modulo 232, denoted by A + B.
Each of them operates on 32-bit words. For the last operation, binary words are interpreted as
integers written in base 2.
• RotR(A, n) denotes the circular right shift of n bits of the binary word A.
• ShR(A, n) denotes the right shift of n bits of the binary word A.
• AkB denotes the concatenation of the binary words A and B.
Functions and constants
The algorithm uses the functions:
Ch(X, Y, Z) = (X ∧ Y ) ⊕ (X ∧ Z),
M aj(X, Y, Z) = (X ∧ Y ) ⊕ (X ∧ Z) ⊕ (Y ∧ Z),
Σ0(X) = RotR(X, 2) ⊕ RotR(X, 13) ⊕ RotR(X, 22),
Σ1(X) = RotR(X, 6) ⊕ RotR(X, 11) ⊕ RotR(X, 25),
σ0(X) = RotR(X, 7) ⊕ RotR(X, 18) ⊕ ShR(X, 3),
σ1(X) = RotR(X, 17) ⊕ RotR(X, 19) ⊕ ShR(X, 10),
and the 64 binary words Ki given by the 32 first bits of the fractional parts of the cube roots of the first
64 prime numbers:
0x428a2f98 0x71374491 0xb5c0fbcf 0xe9b5dba5 0x3956c25b 0x59f111f1 0x923f82a4 0xab1c5ed5
0xd807aa98 0x12835b01 0x243185be 0x550c7dc3 0x72be5d74 0x80deb1fe 0x9bdc06a7 0xc19bf174
0xe49b69c1 0xefbe4786 0x0fc19dc6 0x240ca1cc 0x2de92c6f 0x4a7484aa 0x5cb0a9dc 0x76f988da
0x983e5152 0xa831c66d 0xb00327c8 0xbf597fc7 0xc6e00bf3 0xd5a79147 0x06ca6351 0x14292967
0x27b70a85 0x2e1b2138 0x4d2c6dfc 0x53380d13 0x650a7354 0x766a0abb 0x81c2c92e 0x92722c85
0xa2bfe8a1 0xa81a664b 0xc24b8b70 0xc76c51a3 0xd192e819 0xd6990624 0xf40e3585 0x106aa070
0x19a4c116 0x1e376c08 0x2748774c 0x34b0bcb5 0x391c0cb3 0x4ed8aa4a 0x5b9cca4f 0x682e6ff3
0x748f82ee 0x78a5636f 0x84c87814 0x8cc70208 0x90befffa 0xa4506ceb 0xbef9a3f7 0xc67178f2
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The SHA-256 hash algorithm is integral to data protection on the Web. In this article, we scratched only its surface without diving deeper into the math and the functions behind it. Even so, you now have a general understanding of the algorithm’s purpose and use.
Until we build a quantum computer with enough power to crack complex hash functions, SHA-256 will remain the industry-standard hashing algorithm for data and file integrity. We’re still a few decades away from such a scenario, so for the time being, SHA-256 will be a part of encryption and authentication protocols.
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