But imagine the following:

  1. You send a message, encrypted and accompanied by a hash.
  2. An hacker intercepts it and prevents it reaching your intended recipient.
  3. The hacker, pretending to be you, sends a new message, encrypted and accompanied by a hash.
  4. The recipient decrypts this, and finds the hash matches the hash he or she calculates, so believes he or she has received an uncorrupted message from you.

This is called a man-in-the-middle attack.

The solution to this is for your software to send the hash encrypted as well - but encrypted using your own private key. Since you have published your public key, the recipient's software will be able to decrypt the hash and use it. And the recipient can be sure it came from you, since only your software knows the private key that matches your public key.

A hash encrypted with your private key is called a digital signature.

So if you send a message signed in this way, the recipient knows it came from you. This is the third of the benefits of SSL mentioned above: authentication.

In fact, with a digital signature, your recipient can prove it came from you. If you should ever want to deny it, you can't. This is the fourth benefit mentioned above: non-repudiation. In some parts of the world, a digital signature has legal force, like a traditional hand-written signature.

Notice though that, unlike a hand-written signature, a digital signature is different every time - it is an encryption of the hash of the message it is attached to.

A similar idea to this is a message authentication code (MAC), which is a hash encrypted with the secret key of a symmetric algorithm. MACs are used instead of digital signatures to provide integrity, authentication, and non-repudiation in some systems.