Currently, Microsoft’s Windows updates use two different hashing algorithms to enable Windows to detect tampering or modification of the update files: SHA-1 and SHA-2. Windows 7 and Server 2008 verify the SHA-1 patches; Windows 8 and newer use the SHA-2 hashes instead. March’s Patch Tuesday will include a standalone update for Windows 7, Windows Server 2008 R2, and WSUS to provide support for patches hashed with SHA-2. April’s Patch Tuesday will include an equivalent update for Windows Server 2008.
The SHA-1 algorithm, first published in 1995, takes some input and produces a value known as a hash or a digest that’s 20 bytes long. By design, any small change to the input should produce, with high probability, a wildly different hash value. SHA-1 is no longer considered to be secure, as well-funded organizations have managed to generate hash collisions—two different files that nonetheless have the same SHA-1 hash. If a collision could be generated for a Windows update, it would be possible for an attacker to produce a malicious update that nonetheless appeared to the system to have been produced by Microsoft and not subsequently altered.
This weakness of SHA-1 has seen its gradual deprecation from systems that use it. Modern browsers no longer trust SSL certificates that use SHA-1. The changes to Windows Update are part of this continued process of phasing out the old algorithm. From June 18, 2019 (i.e. taking effect on July’s Patch Tuesday), Windows 10 updates will only include SHA-2 hashes. From July 16, new Windows 7, Server 2008, and Server 2008 R2 patches will only include SHA-2 hashes, and from September 16, legacy Windows Updates with dual SHA-1/SHA-2 digests will be replaced with SHA-2-only versions.
With the patches in place, these changes should be seamless. Without the patches, however, machines will lose the ability to install further Windows Updates. The SHA-2 patches are going to be standalone updates, so even organizations that are holding back other patches for one reason or another should be able to install them without difficulty.