Copyright (C) 1994, Digital Equipment Corp.
 A Fingerprint.T is a 64-bit checksum.  This interface
   provides procedures that can be used to fingerprint
   text strings or more general data structures, such as 

The interface is based on the original idea of M. O. Rabin \cite{Rabin}, as refined by Andrei Broder \cite{Broder}.

INTERFACE Fingerprint;

CONST Brand = "Fingerprint";

    byte: ARRAY [0..7] OF BITS 8 FOR [0..255]

PROCEDURE FromText(txt: TEXT): T;
Return the fingerprint of txt.

PROCEDURE Combine(READONLY fp1, fp2: T): T;
Return the fingerprint of the ordered pair (fp1, fp2).

CONST Zero = T{ARRAY [0..7] OF BITS 8 FOR [0..255] {0, ..}};

VAR (*CONST*) OfEmpty: T;
The fingerprint of the empty text.
 The following procedure, FromChars, provides two
   additional features.  First, it takes an array of
   characters instead of a TEXT, which can save
   on allocations.  Second, it can be used to compute
   the fingerprint of a sequence incrementally,
   a buffer at a time, since it accepts the checksum of
   the previous text together with a new buffer full
   of text and computes the checksum of the whole text.

Return the fingerprint of t & Text.FromChars(buff), where t is the text whose fingerprint is fp.
 The last two procedures in the interface allow you to
   use fingerprints as the key type in a generic table. 

Return fp1 = fp2.

Return a hash code for fp.

END Fingerprint.
\paragraph{The probabilistic guarantee.}

The fingerprint module produces a provably secure checksum. To explain exactly what this means requires a few definitions.

Define a {\it nest} to be a text string or an ordered pair of two nests. The fingerprint FP(x) of a nest x is defined as follows:

      FP(x) = FromText(x) if x is a text
      FP(x) = Combine(FP(y), FP(z)) if x is a pair (y, z).
Two nests x and y {\it collide} if x # y but FP(x) = FP(y). (Two texts are equal if they are Text.Equal, and two pairs are equal if their corresponding components are equal. We assume that nests are finite and non-circular.)

A nest x is a {\it subnest} of y if it occurs anywhere in y; that is, if it equals y or if y is an ordered pair and x is a subnest of one of y's components.

Define the {\it length} of a nest to be the sum of the lengths of all the distinct texts that occur anywhere inside it, and the {\it size} of a nest to be the number of distinct subnests that it has. For example, the length of the nest

      (("a", "b"), ("a", "b"))
is two, since the only texts that occur inside it are a and b, whose lengths sum to two. The size of the nest is four, since its distinct subnests are itself, the pair (a, b), and the texts a and b.

The fingerprint module contains a magic number that was chosen on 12 December 1986 by flipping a quarter 128 times in Andrei Broder's office at SRC. The checksum produced by the package is a function of this magic number.

The probabilistic guarantee for the fingerprint algorithm is that for any nest S, even one produced by an adversary who knows everything about the algorithm except the magic number, the probability that the 1986 coin-flipping produced a magic number such that some pair of subnests of S collide is at most

         (length(S) * size(S)) / 2^62.
From this basic guarantee you can compute an upper bound on the probability of a collision in your application. For example, if two texts t1 and t2 collide, then the nest (t1, t2) contains two colliding subnests. The odds against this are at least 2^62 to N * 3, where N is the total length of the two texts. For example, if the total length is a million characters, the collision probability is at most

         (10^6 * 3) / 2^62
This is less than one in a trillion.

Similarly, given a thousand texts each of length a thousand, considering the linear list of all of them as a nest and applying the guarantee, we conclude that the probability that some pair collide is at most

         (10^6 * 2 * 10^3) / 2^62
which is less than one in 2^31, or less than one in 10^9.

Of course these are probabilities with respect to a random coin-flipping that has already happened and is therefore not random anymore. If you were present in Andrei's office, or if you look at the magic number in the implementation, you can easily construct a small nest that contains a collision. The probabilistic guarantee is valid only if the structure you are fingerprinting is independent of the coin-flipping event. For example, it would not really be a good idea to fingerprint the text of the module Fingerprint.m3, since that text contains the magic number as a constant, and therefore the probabilistic guarantee says nothing about the quality of its fingerprint.

\paragraph{Example applications.}

Fingerprints are useful in many aspects of computer systems. For example, to determine if two long files stored on different computer systems are identical, it is not necessary to transfer the entire file from one system to another: it suffices to fingerprint the files and transfer and compare the fingerprints. (Assuming that the probabilistic guarantee is good enough for your application.)

Fingerprints are also a key technology for achieving type safety in distributed programming. Within a single address space, the compiler and linker can ensure that the value of every variable is consistent with its type. In a distributed computation, where values in one program are reduced to bit sequences and sent over the network to become values of variables in another program, the compiler cannot perform this check: whatever the compiler does, a programmer could erroneously change the type in one of the programs and recompile and execute it. Some kind of runtime check is required when the value is transferred. The simplest check is to send the type of the value along with the value itself, and then to check the type when the value is received. But types can be quite complicated in modern programming languages, and it would be inefficient to communicate types by sending a full description of their structure over the wire. Fingerprints provide the answer: the sending program computes a fingerprint of the type, and the receiving program compares the fingerprint with the fingerprint of the receiving variable. Fingerprints play essentially the same role in making persistent storage typesafe. The SRC Modula-3 runtime provides an interface for converting between typecodes and type fingerprints, for exactly this purpose.

\paragraph{Fingerprinting general data structures.}

The Combine function makes it convenient to fingerprint many data structures. For example, consider a directed acyclic graph (DAG) in which each node nd has a text label lbl(nd) and deg(nd) neighbor nodes nd[1], ..., nd[deg(nd)]. Such a graph represents an expression in which a node nd of degree zero represents a constant value named by lbl(nd), and a node nd of degree greater than zero represents an expression with root operator lbl(nd) and arguments nd[1], ..., nd[deg(nd)].

One way to find common subexpressions is to compute a fingerprint F(nd) for every node nd by the following rule:

      PROCEDURE F(nd): T =
        VAR res := FromText(lbl(nd)); BEGIN
          FOR i := 1 TO deg(nd) DO
            res := Combine(res, F(nd[i]))
          RETURN res
        END F;
(If the DAG is not a tree, the program as written will recompute the fingerprint of nodes with multiple parents, possibly many times. To avoid this, you can easily modify the program to record the fingerprint in the node, so that the total computation time is proportional to the size of the graph.)

The procedure F has the property that with high probability, two nodes have the same fingerprint if and only if they represent common subexpressions. This is a consequence of the probabilistic guarantee together with the observation that f(a1, ..., an) and g(b1, ..., bm) are common subexpressions if and only if the nests

       ( ... ((f, a1),  a2), ... an)
       ( ... ((g, b1),  b2), ... bm)
are equal.

Other data structures, such as cyclic graphs, can be fingerprinted with more elaborate strategies based on the same idea. When designing fingerprinting algorithms for other data structures, it is important to remember that Combine is neither commutative nor associative.


The original fingerprint interface offered at SRC did not include the procedure Combine. The Vesta configuration management project built a system that cached intermediate results for large software builds. Abstractly, this is a special case of the common subexpression problem mentioned previously, and the project used fingerprints as keys in the cache. It is instructive to learn what happened.

You might think that a simple way to solve the common subexpression problem without Combine would be to fingerprint the texts that result from printing the expressions represented by the nodes of the DAG. But if the DAG is not a tree, this is a serious error, since the length of the strings produced by printing a DAG can grow geometrically with its size, and therefore the probabilistic guarantee becomes useless even for quite small DAGs.

Avoiding this error, the Vesta group computed the fingerprint of a node by concatenating the node's label with the {\it fingerprints} of its children---treating these fingerprints as 8-byte texts--- and fingerprinted the resulting text. With this strategy, the number of texts fingerprinted is proportional to the number of nodes of the DAG, and the total length of these texts is proportional to the number of edges of the DAG. Thus the method appears efficient and sound.

Alas, the method is not sound. Recall that the probabilistic guarantee is valid only if the strings being fingerprinted are independent of the magic number. But fingerprints themselves are dependent on the magic number, so the probabalistic guarantee is invalid whenever fingerprints are fingerprinted. The Vesta group was soon debugging an unexpected collision.

The moral is simple: the procedure Combine is a convenience, but it is also much more than a convenience. It should be the only way that you ever generate a fingerprint from another fingerprint. In particular, never treat a fingerprint as text to be passed to FromText.

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