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Sometimes, when you go to a website to download a program or some other file, the page listsa series of letters and numbers, known as a hash, for that file. For example,the site may say that the file has an MD5 hash of 'd597850f62c02287cd5a6869544b3e06', anSHA1 hash of '21531996203e83575d5e61e861c147d687c57ed6' and so on. This sequence of crypticletters and numbers, along with the file size (which should also be listed), is given so thatyou have the means to check that the file you downloaded is most likely the same as the one thewebsite offered. This article shows you how you can generate the hash of a file on a Windows systemusing the programs already preinstalled, so that you can compare it with the official hashes listed.

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What is a Hash?

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Feel free to skip to the nextsection if you already know what a hash is, or can't be bothered to find out more (eg,you are thinking, 'Who cares what a hash is? Just tell me the practical steps to take.'). Note also thatthis is a rough explanation, intended for the layperson. If you are a programmer, and needa precise and technically accurate description, please read a programming reference instead.

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For our purposes here, a hash is something like a checksum. Let's say you work at a bank, and yourjob is to enter a list of account numbers, together with some data about each account, intothe computer system. How do you know that at the end of a long session of entering data, you havetyped in everything accurately? This is especially so for things like account numbers, which haveno inherent meaning (unlike normal words), and therefore are easy to get wrong.

One possible way is to use a checksum. Let's say that the account numbers use the format of'123-456-789-5', where the last digit is a checksum. The fictitious bank in this illustration usesa checksum that is calculated by adding all the earlier digits in the account number (ie, 1+2+3...+9),resulting in a total of 45, and discarding everything in the answer except the last digit (ie, 5).If you make a mistake and enter '124-456-789-5' instead (where the third digit should be 3 insteadof 4), the computer system instantly knows that you have made a mistake somewhere, since an accountnumber beginning with the digits '124-456-789-' should have a final digit, the checksum, of '6', but you entered '5'.

Notice though that it is still possible to have an account number that is entered wrongly, but where thechecksum is unable to show that error, since, in this example, we only have 10 possible checksums, 0 to 9,for the 1 billion possible account numbers. In general, checksums are often not intended to be a 100% accuratemethod of making sure its data is correct. They are usually meant only to be a quick and dirty way of detectingcertain errors. That said, the algorithm used in this example, where we only preserve the last digit of the sum,is particularly flawed.

Hashes are similar to checksums, except that they were originally created for other purposes besides error checking.However, by design, hashes are often unique for a wide range of data (though not all possible data), unlikemy lousy checksum method mentioned in the above example, so they are sometimes used as a quick and dirty wayto check if the file we downloaded is most likely the same one that the author (or distributor)intended us to have.

Before You Get Overconfident About the Results

When you check a file you downloaded to see if it is genuine, that is, that it has not beentampered with nor has it been corrupted in transit, you should note the following:

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  • The file sizes must also be identical. An identical checksum or hash alone is not enough.Anyone can add/subtract bytes to/from a tampered file so as to produce the same checksum as theoriginal.

  • If there are multiple types of hashes provided, eg, MD5, SHA1, SHA256 and SHA512, your confidenceof the file's integrity improves if all the hashes match, and the file size is identical. That is,even if a particular hash algorithm (ie, method) allows 2 different files of the same size to end up withthe same sequence of letters and numbers, it is less likely that those files also produce matchinghashes for all the other algorithms.

    Or to put it simply (in case the above paragraph has too much technobabble, making it difficult tounderstand), if a website provides many types of hashes for a file, and you can match them allwith the file you downloaded, and it has the same size as the original, you have greater assurancethat you have the same file as that listed on the website.

  • The commonly provided hashes have their own problems, in that they are known to havecollisions, where different files can actually end up with the same hash. This is particularly sowith MD5 and SHA1. That is why I said earlier that you have greater confidence if all the hashes match,since it is probably harder to create a tampered file that provides matching hashes for every singlealgorithm.

  • For all this checking to have any use at all, the site from which you get the hashes must be reliable andtrustworthy. In addition, your connection to it must be secure. Otherwise you may be checking against hashesthat have also been tampered with, giving you false confidence that your file is legitimate.

    If the site from which you obtained the hashes is not accessed using 'https://' (notice the 's'),but you reached it with a simple 'http://', then your connection is definitely not secure.This increases the risk even more, since there is a chance that you are not really connected to thewebsite you think you are accessing. Someone on the Internet (or on your WiFi connection or network) can substitutea fake website that seems to be at the correct address, but provide hashes for a tampered file.

  • A file with hashes that match the officially-published hashes means, at best, that you probably have theitem intended by the author/distributor. It does not mean that it is not infected with malware.Remember that anyone's computers can get infected, even the people from whom you are getting the file,resulting in the files they distribute being infected. The hashes provided may have been generatedunknowingly (or even knowingly) after those files were infected.You should always scan the file you obtain with an antivirus, and perhaps even upload itto one of thefree online antivirus sites that scan using multiple antivirus programs.

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How to Hash a File in Windows

Windows 7, 8, 8.1 and 10 (I'm not sure about earlier versions) have a command-line program called certutilthat can generate MD2, MD4, MD5, SHA1, SHA256, SHA384 and SHA512 hashes for a file.

Note that if you are intimidated by the thought of using a command-line program, and prefer to use aprogram sporting a graphical user interface, where you can just click buttons and the like, you willhave to install a third party (ie, non-Microsoft) program. There are a few such tools listed on theFree MD5Checksum or Hashing Utilities page. Although the latter is focused on MD5, some of the free toolsit links to also support multiple types of hashes. I will not deal with such programs here, though,since it's outside the scope of this tutorial.

  1. Copy or move your file to somewhere where you can easily access it, such as your desktop. Ifyou are not familiar with working on the command line, copy or move the file to your desktop.This will help you with one of the steps below, since you can just use my instructions verbatim.

  2. Open a command line prompt. To do this, click the Start menu button and type 'cmd' (without thequotation marks). The words 'Command Prompt' should appear at the top of the menu. Click it to run it.

  3. You will see a black window with a title bar that says 'Command Prompt', anda blinking text cursor just after words that say something like 'c:Userschristopherheng>'somewhere in the window. (The exact words will not be the same, since your Windows account name will probablybe different from mine.)

  4. Now navigate to the directory or folder where you have placed your file. If you have copied the file toyour desktop as I suggested, type 'cd desktop' (without the quotation marks) and hit the ENTER key.Otherwise, change directory by typing 'cd' followed by the full path. If the previous sentencedoes not make sense to you (because it is filled with technical lingo), type 'cd desktop'(without the quotation marks, and followed by the ENTER key) to go to your desktop, and copy your fileto your desktop as I mentioned in the first step.

    You can verify that your file is indeed in your new location by typing 'dir' (without thequotation marks), followed by the ENTER key. This will list all the files and folders in that directory.

  5. To get the MD5 hash for the file, type the command line in the box below, followed by the ENTER key.Change 'filename.exe' to your file's actual name. This must be the full filename,including the suffix (or extension). Note that you may not be able to see the real full filename in WindowsExplorer or your desktop, since Windows hides it by default. If so, eitherforceWindows to show the full name, complete with file extension, or find out the name from the 'dir' listing youdid above.Enclose the name inside double quotation marks, especially if your filename contains spaces.(If you are not sure, just enclose it inside double quotation marks anyway. It will do no harm.)

    certutil -hashfile 'filename.exe' MD5

    The command line for the other types of hashes are:

    certutil -hashfile 'filename.exe' SHA1
    certutil -hashfile 'filename.exe' SHA256
    certutil -hashfile 'filename.exe' SHA512

    The same pattern follows for the MD2, MD4 and SHA384 hashes, although you are unlikely to have to use those.

  6. The program certutil will print the results on the screen when it has finished processingthe file. If your file is very big, and your hard disk is slow, it may take some time to run, since ithas to read every single byte of the file.

  7. Compare the results with your source. Remember to compare the file size too.You can quickly get the file size from the command line (since you are already there), by typing thefollowing (after substituting your actual file name in place of 'filename.exe', of course),and hitting the ENTER key.

    dir 'filename.exe'

    This gives you the actual file size in bytes, instead of the rounded up number you see in a typical Windows Explorerwindow.

  8. When you are done hashing your file, close the Command Prompt window by typing 'exit' followed by theENTER key. Alternatively, you can also close it by clicking the 'X' button on the topright corner of the window.

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