There’s a rumor circulating at the Crypto conference, which is being held this week in Santa Barbara, that somebody is about to announce a partial break of the SHA-1 cryptographic hashfunction. If true, this will have a big impact, as I’ll describe below. And if it’s not true, it will have helped me trick you into learning a little bit about cryptography. So read on….

SHA-1 is the most popular cryptographic hashfunction (CHF). A CHF is a mathematical operation which, roughly speaking, takes a pile of data and computes a fixed size “digest” of that data. To be cryptographically sound, a CHF should have two main properties. (1) Given a digest, it must be essentially impossible to figure out what data generated that digest. (2) It must be essentially impossible to find find a “collision”, that is, to find two different data values that have the same digest.

CHFs are used all over the place. They’re used in most popular cryptographic protocols, including the ones used to secure email and secure web connections. They appear in digital signature protocols that are used in e-commerce applications. Since SHA-1 is the most popular CHF, and the other popular ones are weaker cousins of SHA-1, a break of SHA-1 would be pretty troublesome. For example, it would cast doubt on digital signatures, since it might allow an adversary to cut somebody’s signature off one document and paste it (undetectably) onto another document.

At the Crypto conference, Biham and Chen have a paper showing how to find near-collisions in SHA-0, a slightly less secure variant of SHA-1. On Thursday, Antoine Joux announced an actual collision for SHA-0. And now the rumor is that somebody has extended Joux’s method to find a collision in SHA-1. If true, this would mean that the SHA-1 function, which is widely used, does not have the cryptographic properties that it is supposed to have.

The finding of a single collision in SHA-1 would not, by itself, cause much trouble, since one arbitrary collision won’t do an attacker much good in practice. But history tells us that such discoveries are usually followed by a series of bigger discoveries that widen the breach, to the point that the broken primitive becomes unusable. A collision in SHA-1 would cast doubt over the future viability of any system that relies on SHA-1; and as I’ve explained, that’s a lot of systems. If SHA-1 is completely broken, the result would be significant confusion, reengineering of many systems, and incompatibility between new (patched) systems and old.

We’ll probably know within a few days whether the rumor of the finding a collision in SHA-1 is correct.