Hash Functions in Secure Coding: Best Practices and Tips
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 8 min read


  1. What are hash functions?
  2. Why use hash functions in secure coding?
  3. How to use hash functions in secure coding
  4. Best practices for using hash functions
  5. Tips for implementing hash functions
  6. Common mistakes to avoid when using hash functions
  7. Examples of hash functions in secure coding
  8. Hash functions and cybersecurity

If you've dipped your toes into the world of coding, you've no doubt come across the term "hash functions." These nifty little tools are a staple in the realm of secure coding practices. In this blog, we'll break down what hash functions are, why they're important in secure coding, and how you can make the most out of them. So let's dive into the world of hash functions in secure coding practices!

What are hash functions?

Imagine you're in a library full of books—millions of them. You're looking for one specific book, but the catch is, there's no librarian, no index, and the books aren't sorted in any way. Sounds like a nightmare, right? This is where hash functions come to the rescue.

Hash functions are like the super librarians of the coding world. They take an input (or 'message') and return a fixed-size string of bytes. The output—often referred to as the hash value or hash code—is typically a 'digest' that is unique to each unique input. It's like giving every book in the library a unique code, so you can find it easily.

Here's what makes hash functions a big deal:

  • They are deterministic: This means that the same input will always produce the same output—every single time. If you use the book 'Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone' as an input, the hash function will always give you the same unique code.
  • They save a lot of time: Without hash functions, your computer would have to read every line of code to find a specific piece—like looking for a needle in a haystack. Hash functions make this process quicker and more efficient.
  • They are secure: Hash functions play a vital role in ensuring data integrity. Any change in the input—even a tiny one—results in a drastically different output. This makes it easier to detect any changes or tampering with the data.

So, when it comes to secure coding practices, hash functions are the unsung heroes that keep things running smoothly and securely. In the next sections, we'll take a closer look at how you can use hash functions in secure coding practices, and some tips and tricks to keep in mind.

Why use hash functions in secure coding?

Now that we know what hash functions are, let's talk about why they are so important in secure coding. Picture this: You're sending a secret message to a friend. To make sure no one else reads it, you scramble the letters and give your friend the code to unscramble them. This is similar to what hash functions do in secure coding. They help keep our data safe and secure. Here's how:

  • Data Integrity: Let's say you download a file from the internet. How do you know it hasn't been tampered with during transmission? That's where hash functions come in. They create a unique 'fingerprint' for each file. If even a single character is altered, the hash value changes drastically. So, by comparing the hash value of the downloaded file with the original one, you can ensure the file's integrity.
  • Password Security: When you create an account on a website, your password is often stored as a hash value, not as the plain text. So even if someone gets access to the database, they won't know your actual password. Pretty cool, right?
  • Quick Data Retrieval: Hash functions are used in hash tables for storing and retrieving data quickly. They transform the data into a unique code, making data retrieval a breeze.

So whether it's maintaining data integrity, securing passwords, or speedy data retrieval, hash functions play a critical role in secure coding practices. But how do you use them correctly? Let's find out in the next section!

How to use hash functions in secure coding

Alright, so we know why hash functions are important. But how do we use them? Don't worry, it's simpler than you might think. Here are some steps to guide you:

  1. Choose the Right Hash Function: Not all hash functions are created equal. Some are more secure and efficient than others. For secure coding practices, cryptographic hash functions like SHA-256 or SHA-3 are commonly used.
  2. Hash the Data: Once you've chosen your hash function, the next step is to hash your data. This could be anything from a file to a password. The hash function will take this data and transform it into a fixed-size string of characters, which is the hash value.
  3. Verify the Hash: Now that you have the hash value, you can use it to verify the integrity of your data. If the data is altered in any way, the hash value will change. By comparing the hash values, you can detect any changes to the data.

Remember, using hash functions in secure coding isn't just about knowing the steps. It's about understanding why and when to use them. And most importantly, it's about using them responsibly to protect the data you're working with. So, are you ready to start hashing?

Best practices for using hash functions

Now that you know how to use hash functions, let's discuss the best practices for implementing them in secure coding — just some simple rules that can make all the difference. Here they are:

  1. Don't Roll Your Own: It might be tempting to create your own custom hash function, but this is usually a bad idea. Cryptography is complex, and mistakes can be costly. Stick with tried-and-tested hash functions like SHA-256 or SHA-3.
  2. Use Salt: A salt is a random value that you add to your data before hashing it. This can help protect against attacks by making it harder for an attacker to guess the hash value.
  3. Store Hash Values, Not Data: One of the main benefits of hash functions is that they allow you to verify data without having to store the data itself. So, instead of storing sensitive data like passwords, store their hash values.
  4. Keep Up with Advances: Cryptography is a rapidly evolving field. What's secure today might not be secure tomorrow. Stay informed about the latest advancements and update your hash functions as necessary.

These practices can be the difference between secure code and a potential data breach. So, remember these tips the next time you're working with hash functions in secure coding practices. It's all about being smart and staying ahead of the game, right?

Tips for implementing hash functions

Using hash functions in secure coding practices is more than just knowing how they work. It's about knowing how to implement them effectively. Here are some handy tips:

  1. Understand Your Requirements: Different hash functions have different properties. Some are faster, some are more secure, some create longer hash values. Understand what your project needs before choosing a hash function.
  2. Think Ahead: Your code may need to handle data of varying sizes and types. Make sure your chosen hash function can handle everything you throw at it.
  3. Test Your Code: This one might seem obvious, but it's sometimes overlooked. Always test your hash functions with different input data to make sure they're working correctly.
  4. Use Libraries: There are many great libraries out there that provide reliable hash functions. Don't reinvent the wheel if you don't have to. Libraries like OpenSSL and CryptoJS can save you a lot of time.

Remember, using hash functions is an art as much as it is a science. These tips should help you become a more effective coder and make your secure coding practices even better. So, ready to get hashing?

Common mistakes to avoid when using hash functions

When it comes to using hash functions in secure coding practices, even the best of us can trip up sometimes. Here are some common mistakes to avoid:

  1. Not Considering Collision Resistance: Hash functions are not perfect. There's a small chance that two different data inputs will produce the same hash output, a situation known as a collision. Be aware of this possibility and make sure your code can handle it.
  2. Using Outdated Hash Functions: As technology advances, so too do the methods used to crack hash functions. If you're still using MD5, for example, it's time to upgrade. Always use the most recent and secure hash functions available.
  3. Ignoring Salt: No, we're not talking about the stuff you put on your fries. In hash functions, a 'salt' is an added piece of data that makes your hash output unique. Without it, an attacker could use precomputed tables to crack your hashes.
  4. Forgetting to Check Integrity: Hash functions can help ensure data hasn't been tampered with during transmission. But this only works if you remember to check the hash value at the other end!

Learning to avoid these mistakes can help you use hash functions more effectively in your secure coding practices. Remember, no one is perfect—we all make mistakes. The trick is to learn from them and keep improving. Still with me? Great, let's keep going!

Examples of hash functions in secure coding

Let's dive into some real-life examples of how hash functions are applied in secure coding practices. Ready to explore? Let's go!

  1. SHA-256 for Password Storage: Let's say you're developing a website and you need to store user passwords. Storing them in plain text? Big no-no. Instead, you can use a hash function like SHA-256 to convert these passwords into a unique hash. Even if someone gains access to the hash values, they won't be able to reverse-engineer the original password.
  2. MD5 for File Integrity Checking: Suppose you're downloading the latest version of your favorite open-source software. How can you confirm the file hasn't been tampered with during the download process? This is where MD5 comes into play. The software provider can provide an MD5 hash of the file, which you can then compare with the hash of your downloaded file. If they match, you're good to go!
  3. bcrypt for Salting Hashes: Remember when we talked about 'salting' hashes? Well, bcrypt is a hash function designed specifically for this purpose. It automatically generates and appends a random 'salt' to your data before hashing, making it much more difficult for attackers to crack the hash.

These are just a few of the many ways hash functions are used in secure coding practices. The beauty of hash functions lies in their versatility—they can be applied in so many different scenarios to enhance security. So, why not give it a try in your next project?

Hash functions and cybersecurity

Hash functions are like secret agents in the world of cybersecurity. They work behind the scenes, keeping your data safe and sound from bad guys. Hash functions in secure coding practices are fundamental to preserving the integrity and security of online data.

Think about digital signatures. They're like those wax seals on old-timey letters, assuring you the message hasn't been tampered with. How does this work? With a hash function! The original message is hashed, and this hash is encrypted with a private key, creating a digital signature. When you receive the message, you can use the sender's public key to decrypt it, and then hash the message yourself. If your hash matches the decrypted hash, you know the message is authentic.

And what about protecting sensitive data? Hash functions play a big role here too. When you enter your credit card information online, hash functions help ensure your data is not readable by potential hackers. Instead of transmitting your actual credit card number, a hash of the number is sent. This way, even if someone intercepts the data, they can't reverse-engineer your credit card number from the hash.

These are just a few examples of how hash functions are key players in the field of cybersecurity. They're like unsung heroes, tirelessly working to keep our digital world safe. So next time you're coding securely, remember to tip your hat to the humble hash function.

If you found this blog post on hash functions in secure coding helpful and want to learn more about the broader context of digital security, we recommend checking out the workshop 'Crypto For Creators, Part 1: The Backbone Of The Digital Economy' by Tom Glendinning. This workshop will provide you with an in-depth understanding of cryptography, its importance in today's digital world, and how it can be applied in various creative projects.