The MD5 algorithm is a widely used hash function producing a 128-bit hash value. Although MD5 was initially designed to be used as a cryptographic hash function, it has been found to suffer from extensive vulnerabilities. It can still be used as a checksum to verify data integrity, but only against unintentional corruption.
Like most hash functions, MD5 is neither encryption nor encoding. It can be cracked by brute-force attack and suffers from extensive vulnerabilities as detailed in the security section below.
MD5 was designed by Ronald Rivest in 1991 to replace an earlier hash function MD4. The source code in RFC 1321 contains a “by attribution” RSA license. The abbreviation “MD” stands for “Message Digest.”
The security of the MD5 has been severely compromised, with its weaknesses having been exploited in the field, most infamously by the Flame malware in 2012. The CMU Software Engineering Institute considers MD5 essentially “cryptographically broken and unsuitable for further use”. Despite this known vulnerability, MD5 remains in use.
History and cryptanalysis
MD5 is one in a series of message digest algorithms designed by Professor Ronald Rivest of Massachusetts Institute of Technology|MIT (Rivest, 1992). When analytic work indicated that MD5’s predecessor MD4 was likely to be insecure, Rivest designed MD5 in 1991 as a secure replacement. (Hans Dobbertin did indeed later find weaknesses in MD4.)
In 1993, Den Boer and Bosselaers gave an early, although limited, result of finding a “pseudo-collision” of the MD5 compression function; that is, two different initialization vectors that produce an identical digest.
In 1996, Dobbertin announced a collision of the compression function of MD5 (Dobbertin, 1996). While this was not an attack on the full MD5 hash function, it was close enough for cryptographers to recommend switching to a replacement, such as SHA-1 or RIPEMD-160.
The size of the hash value (128 bits) is small enough to contemplate a birthday attac. MD5CRK was a distributed project started in March 2004 with the aim of demonstrating that MD5 is practically insecure by finding a collision using a birthday attack.
MD5CRK ended shortly after 17 August 2004, when collisions for the full MD5 were announced by Xiaoyun Wang, Dengguo Feng, Xuejia Lai, and Hongbo Yu. Their analytical attack was reported to take only one hour on an IBM p690 cluster.
On 1 March 2005, Arjen Lenstra, Xiaoyun Wang, and Benne de Weger demonstrated construction of two X.509 certificates with different public keys and the same MD5 hash value, a demonstrably practical collision. The construction included private keys for both public keys. A few days later, Vlastimil Klima described an improved algorithm, able to construct MD5 collisions in a few hours on a single notebook computer. On 18 March 2006, Klima published an algorithm that could find a collision within one minute on a single notebook computer, using a method he calls tunneling.
Various MD5-related RFC errata have been published. In 2009, the United States Cyber Command used an MD5 hash value of their mission statement as a part of their official emblem.
On 24 December 2010, Tao Xie and Dengguo Feng announced the first published single-block (512-bit) MD5 collision. (Previous collision discoveries had relied on multi-block attacks.) For “security reasons”, Xie and Feng did not disclose the new attack method. They issued a challenge to the cryptographic community, offering a US$10,000 reward to the first finder of a different 64-byte collision before 1 January 2013. Marc Stevens responded to the challenge and published colliding single-block messages as well as the construction algorithm and sources.
In 2011 an informational RFC 6151 was approved to update the security considerations in MD5 and HMAC-MD5.
The security of the MD5 hash function is severely compromised. A collision attack exists that can find collisions within seconds on a computer with a 2.6 GHz Pentium 4 processor . Further, there is also a chosen-prefix collision attack that can produce a collision for two inputs with specified prefixes within hours, using off-the-shelf computing hardware.
The ability to find collisions has been greatly aided by the use of off-the-shelf GPUs. On an NVIDIA GeForce 8400GS graphics processor, 16–18 million hashes per second can be computed. An NVIDIA GeForce 8800 Ultra can calculate more than 200 million hashes per second.
These hash and collision attacks have been demonstrated in the public in various situations, including colliding document files and digital certificates.