When people talk about hash functions, they usually say that they accept arbitrary-length input, but if you actually look at the padding (eg MD-strengthening padding), you see it's like M100.000||length where length is the binary representation in bytes or bits. But what if the length is so large that you can't represent it in a single block?

Obviously you can get around this problem by just using the most significant bits, but doesn't this destroy the MD-compliant padding property (which you need in proofs of one-wayness and collision resistance etc, assuming properties of the compression function)?


1 Answer 1


It depends on the exact Merkle-Damgaard hash.

MD5 will literally take an arbitrary length; that's because the value placed in the padding is actually computed modulo $2^{64}$.

For SHA-1 and the SHA-2 hashes, yes, you are correct; there is an upper bound on the length of the preimages that could potentially be hashed; for SHA-1, SHA-224 and SHA-256, it's $2^{64}-1$ bits; for SHA-384, SHA-512, SHA-512/224 and SHA-512/256, it's $2^{128}-1$ bits.

On the other hand, for all practical purposes, these limits are effectively infinite. For example, with SHA-1, the limit of $2^{64}-1$ bits, that's $2^{55}$ blocks; even if we were able to the compression function in 10nsec, that means it'd take us over 10 years to hash a single value that size. It's unlikely that anyone would actually attempt that.

  • $\begingroup$ Makes sense, thanks. With regards to MD5, does the padding satisfy the conditions of being MD-compliant (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Merkle%E2%80%93Damg%C3%A5rd_construction)? I think not? And I think it's impossible to truly take arbitrary length input and still satisfy MD-compliancy isn't it? $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Commented Dec 8, 2014 at 11:17
  • $\begingroup$ I think it won't scale that high on the list of MD5 deficiencies if it's not MD-compliant with regards to this. It would be fun though if you could generate a collision after 2^64 cycles, some kind of MD5 "time bomb" :) $\endgroup$
    – Maarten Bodewes
    Commented Dec 9, 2014 at 10:37

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