(This question is a follow-up from another question I asked about MD5, which is why I'm insisting on using MD5 in this question as well)

My imaginary Linux distribution, Sushi Linux has had a big incident. Hackers gained access to the website and replaced the download link with a link to an infected ISO file. The website was taken down, and a backup was restored, after making sure that this cannot happen again of course.

Still, my logs show that the infected ISO file was downloaded by a lot of people. I want to give them easy instructions to check whether or not they are infected.

Both the infected and the uninfected ISO file have the same size, but they have different MD5 sums. My religion does not recognize any other hashing algorithm than MD5, so that's what I'll use in 2019. I know about the weaknesses but since no other hashing algorithm exists I'll use it anyway.

My users are afraid that they installed Sushi Linux using an infected ISO and they ask me how they can check. The ISO file they can download from my website today is the uninfected one, and I've fixed the problem the hackers used to get in last time, they're not getting in a second time. However, my users want a way of verifying their local file without downloading a new one (most Sushi Linux users are on 56K modems so they don't want to download it again).

I've considered publishing the MD5-sum of the infected ISO, so that users can identify their local ISO as being the infected one, and I've considered publishing the MD5-sum of the correct ISO, so that users can identify their local ISO as being the uninfected one. My webmaster is hourly, so I can only publish one hash. Does it matter which hash I publish for users to be able to check if they have the infected file or the real file?

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ "My religion does not recognize any other hashing algorithm than MD5"... That's my kind of religion! Where do I sign up for the crusade against those smug SHA-2 heretics? $\endgroup$
    – ANone
    Commented Apr 26, 2019 at 12:45
  • $\begingroup$ Out of interest, since this question is set in a universe where we're assuming MD5 to be "good enough", doesn't that make the question not-MD5-specific whatsoever? $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 21, 2021 at 19:47
  • $\begingroup$ @JamesTheAwesomeDude not universe, just a religion practiced by the maintainers of Sushi Linux. $\endgroup$
    – jornane
    Commented Apr 21, 2021 at 19:51
  • $\begingroup$ My question stands: if MD5 is the best we have, and the risk of a preimage attack is elided / ignored / accepted by fiat for lack of any other option, what differences could there be between this question and one that's hypothetically not bound to MD5? $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 21, 2021 at 19:53
  • $\begingroup$ The answer between this question and an unbounded question could be the same. However, the answers MAY also be different, because of these risks with MD5 (which are not mitigated/ignored, MAYBE accepted, but we simply believe that there is no solution to these risks, as it is a sin to merely suggest a better hashing algorithm may exist) $\endgroup$
    – jornane
    Commented Apr 21, 2021 at 20:29

2 Answers 2


Does it matter? Yes: there's a qualitative difference in the types of attacks that would break your system. The elephant in the room, of course, is MD5, but let's examine the qualitative difference between the attacks first.

It is almost useless to publish the bad hashes, because as an adversary I could just distribute different versions to everyone. A million downloads? A million different ISO images, uniquely tailored with a special brand of malice.

What about publishing the good hashes? This is what you should do anyway, but you're restricted to MD5. How can I break this?

I'm an evil developer, and I play the long game.

  1. I make three versions of a software package:

    • the good one does what it is advertised to do which is something useful
    • the bad one does something harmful noisily, like uploading credit card data to a bad place
    • the sneaky one does something harmful quietly, like slowly making your screen look blurrier and blurrier over the course of a month, or silently disabling disk encryption

    There's a sneaky catch: the good one and the sneaky one collide under MD5, but the bad one does not.

  2. I publish the good package under my name, and the curators closely scrutinize it to audit the code and confirm it does what it claims. (Yeah, right!)

  3. I hire someone, who lives in a closet under the stairs in the Ecuadorian embassy with nothing but his cat and his colossal narcissism to entertain himself, to break into the package servers and upload the bad package on one distribution server, and the sneaky package on all the other ones.

  4. Someone notices the network traffic from credit card uploads and raises an alarm. The curators publish the good package's hash for everyone to verify their systems.

  5. Everyone freaks out and stampedes to upgrade the software simultaneously.

Now everyone has the sneaky software, and if they check the MD5 hash they will rest assured that it's the good package's hash.

You could say this is convoluted. True, it is convoluted: I wouldn't try to pull this plan off, but that's in part because I'm not really evil. Evil people who are dedicated will use a convoluted plan if it works. A single NUL byte buffer overflow can, through a convoluted series of steps, be turned into remote code execution.

So what do you do? In your rush to rectify the poisoned ISO image, you could commission a careful multinational study of the technical capabilities of everyone on the planet who might be your adversary, and determine their risk aversion, technical sophistication, logistical planning, and chutzpah to see whether they would be capable of pulling off any attack in this class.

But that might cost a pretty penny and it might take a bit of time.

Fortunately, there's a much cheaper way to get a high degree of confidence that you thwart any plan of this sort, without having to study how convoluted the adversary's actions might have to be and whether that level of convolution is feasible.

Don't do something stupid like using MD5. Use a modern collision-resistant hash that isn't broken instead, like SHA-256, or SHAKE128, or BLAKE2b.

If you absolutely must use MD5 and MD5 alone, you could publish $(r, \operatorname{MD5}(r \mathbin\| n \mathbin\| m))$ where $r$ is chosen uniformly at random independently for each file (maybe as the HMAC-MD5 of $m$ under a secret key), $n$ is the name of the file including the version (encoded prefix-free, maybe with a length delimiter), and $m$ is the content of the file. (Of course, if the adversary knows or can predict $r$ before they choose $m$, then it's back to the same issue as standard MD5.) But chances are, it'll be much easier for you and your users if you just use a non-broken hash. SHA-256 has been available for a decade and a half.

  • $\begingroup$ Really nice example, thanks! By publishing only the good hash, I'm also (incorrectly) sanctioning the sneaky package. By publishing only the bad hash, I'm (correctly) blacklisting your bad application but I'm not doing anything against the sneaky one. If I'm really true to my "religion", publishing the bad one is "better", but using an actually better hashing than MD5 would solve both. Still, given you got the bad version through, my package manager's integrity checking must suck (invalid MD5 came through), but that's a minor detail; the important thing is that "bad" got detected quickly. $\endgroup$
    – jornane
    Commented Apr 25, 2019 at 22:31
  • $\begingroup$ When I find out my server is distributing bad ISOs, I'd probably download a copy of the bad ISO myself, and maybe I'll even remember to compare MD5 hashes between my bad ISO and the bad ISO my imaginary friend downloaded. But then you were one step ahead, and you made sure that we would get the same ISO, so that we would be fooled into thinking there was only one bad one. Touché; given an elaborate enough attack publishing only the bad hash is useless, even if a good hashing algorithm is used. $\endgroup$
    – jornane
    Commented Apr 25, 2019 at 22:42
  • $\begingroup$ "the good one and the sneaky one collide under MD5" If you can do this, you win the internet. This is still considered a 'hard' problem. $\endgroup$
    – ANone
    Commented Apr 26, 2019 at 13:21
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @ANone Judging by your answer, it seems like you thought I was describing a preimage attack, rather than a collision attack. Not so: as the evil developer, I don't just take an existing good package as a target; rather, I simultaneously create the good and the sneaky packages, using an MD5 collision attack and my development skills which are themselves morally neutral and competent to create good and evil software at the same time. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 26, 2019 at 13:55
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @ANone A collision attack is finding two messages $m \ne m'$ such that $H(m) = H(m')$. This is exactly what I'm doing; here $m$ is the good software package and $m'$ is the bad software package, and the collision attacks on MD5 let me impose a substantial amount of structure on the $m$ and $m'$ that I find. A preimage attack is to find a message $m$ given a prescribed hash $h$ such that $H(m) = h$, but in my scenario there is no a priori prescribed hash; I simultaneously create the good and sneaky packages using an MD5 collision attack. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 26, 2019 at 15:35

There are issues with MD5 that make this slightly less clear. But, if you ignore those:

Knowing that a given ISO isn't the bad ISO doesn't, as suggested by Squeamish Ossifrage, help too much. You rely on far too many things that may, or may not, be true like self-modification, multiple versions of the bad thing etc. If hashing was perfect (no-collisions) and the ISO is know-good because its hashes match, you don't have that problem. The advantage of the 'known-bad' system (again assuming a perfect hashing system) is that it's very clear smoking gun. There's no way that a file with the 'bad' hash should be there. It's safe to delete and you know you got it. You can even apply this to all ISO's on the system (or over the wire etc). Much like an anti-virus system that often uses a 'know-bad' signature system.

Which depends is best depends on the policy you are using to stop the spread of the bad one. In the sense of checking a file you want to be sure the 'good one' then just checking it's 'not the bad one' is a bad idea. I feel it's worth noting at this point: no one is making you pick; there's no reason you can't do both.

If you drop the 'perfection' from the hashing algorithm the situation's a tad more complex. I.e. whoever did it, could do something sneaky like make the hash of the 'bad' thing match something you shouldn't delete or make it look like the original because the hashes match. However to do this requires your hashing algorithm to be really broken. To my knowledge it's not currently tractable to made an ISO that looks like another fixed target that isn't that one, under MD5. Which you would need to, in order to do those attacks, (or anything else I can think of, but take that with a pinch of salt).

I'll finish by defending your religious observations. In that I'd trust:

  • That matching a know-good MD5 meant it was good.

Way more than I'd trust:

  • My hashing implementation isn't lying to me, given I have just installed a malicious package.
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ You could sneak in any kind of file into an ISO. As far as I know, ISO files themselves are commonly not compressed. You are right that you cannot attack a fixed target that hasn't been prepared for a collision attack. However if that ISO does start with a file that allows an attack then you're screwed. Now any binary file delivered by a developer becomes suspect, including images and such, and there is no reasonable way for you to check. Yeah, sure, if you are the sole person including files then you can trust the MD5. That's not the case for Sushi Linux. $\endgroup$
    – Maarten Bodewes
    Commented Apr 27, 2019 at 9:10
  • $\begingroup$ @MaartenBodewes ISOs have sector headers and error checking hashes as part of the protocol. None of the collision attacks I know of would be able to accommodate this, and my limited understanding of the maths means i wouldn't be a simple transformation of the problem. Your right there maybe another sneaky thing to do other than pre-image, but for sushi it's probably ok. I think the downvote anger comes from the implicit connection to 'that makes it a good choice'. So to reiterate: you shouldn't skate that close to the wire as someone else may come up with something cleverer. $\endgroup$
    – ANone
    Commented Apr 29, 2019 at 8:59

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