Modeling of Hashing in the Certora Prover

In this document we present how the Keccak hash function is modeled in the Certora Prover and how that impacts smart contract verification.


The Keccak hash function is used heavily by Solidity smart contracts in an implicit way. Most prominently, all unbounded data structures in storage (arrays, mappings) receive their storage addresses as values of the Keccak function. It is also possible to call the Keccak hash function explicitly, both through a solidity built in function and through inline assembly.

The Certora Prover does not operate with an actual implementation of the Keccak hash function, since this would make most verification intractable and provide no practical benefits. Instead, the Certora Prover models the properties of the Keccak hash function that are crucial for the function of the smart contracts under verification while abstracting away from implementation details of the actual hash function.

Modeling the Keccak function (bounded case)

The Certora Prover models the Keccak hash function as an arbitrary function that is injective with large gaps.

The hash function hash being injective with large gaps means that on distinct inputs x and y

  • the hashes hash(x) and hash(y) are also distinct, and

  • the gap between hash(x) and hash(y) is large enough that every additive term hash(x) + i that occurs in the program is also distinct from hash(y).

Furthermore, the initial storage slots and large constants that appear in the code are reserved. I.e., we make sure that no hash value ends up colliding with slots 0 to 10000 nor with any constant that is explicitly given in the source code. (The latter constraint is necessary to avoid collisions with hashes that the solidity compiler has precompiled.)

These constraints are enough for the Solidity storage model to work as expected. However, this modeling allows the Certora Prover to pick hash functions that show different behavior from the actual Keccak function. For instance, it is unlikely that the individual numeric values or their ordering matches that of the Keccak function. We present some examples in the following subsection. We have not observed a practical use case yet where the numeric values of the hash function play a role, thus we chose this modeling for tractability reasons.

See the later subsection Background: The Solidity Storage Model for details on why this property is an adequate model for maintaining integrity of solidity’s storage operations.

Examples (Imprecision of Modeling)

We illustrate the implications of our modeling decisions using a few examples.

Modeling does not account for individual values of the Keccak function

The Keccak256-hash of the string hello is 0x1c8aff950685c2ed4bc3174f3472287b56d9517b9c948127319a09a7a36deac8. However, due to our modeling, the Certora Prover cannot prove that fact. the rule hashOf17Eq will show as “violated” since the Prover can pick a function for keccak256 that assigns hello differently. For the same reason the Prover also does not disprove that the hash of 17 is 0x1c8aff950685c2ed4bc3174f3472287b56d9517b9c948127319a09a7a36deac8, since we allow it to choose keccak256 appropriately.

// CVL:
methods { hash(uint) returns (uint) envfree; }

rule hashOf17Eq {
	assert(hash("hello") == 0x1c8aff950685c2ed4bc3174f3472287b56d9517b9c948127319a09a7a36deac8);

rule hashOf17Neq {
	assert(hash("hello") != 0x1c8aff950685c2ed4bc3174f3472287b56d9517b9c948127319a09a7a36deac8);

// solidity:
contract C {
	function hash(string x) public returns (bytes32) {
		return keccak256(bytes(x));

Modeling does not account for ordering

Whichever distinct values we chose for x and y in the example below, on the real Keccak function, one rule would be violated and one rule would not. In the modeling of the Certora Prover, both rules are violated, since the Prover is allowed to “invent” a hash function for each rule and will choose one that violates the property whenever there is such a function (as long as that function fulfills the “injectivity with large gaps” property).

// CVL:
methods { hash(uint) returns (uint) envfree; }

definition x() : uint = 12345678
definition y() : uint = 87654321

rule hashXLowerOrEqualToHashY {
	assert hash(x()) <= hash(y());

rule hashXLargerThanHashY {
	assert(hash(x()) > hash(y()));

// solidity:
contract C {
	function hash(uint x) public returns (bytes32) {
		// we're assuming presence of some to_bytes function here; it's 
		// practical implementation is not relevant here
		return keccak256(to_bytes(x)); 

Constants in code vs hashes

A special case in Certora Prover’s modeling of hashing is the treatment of constants that appear in the code: The Prover implicitly assumes that the hash function never outputs one of these constants on any of the concrete inputs it gets in that program.

For an example, consider this rule and spec:

// CVL:
methods {
    function readAtSlotAddress() external returns (uint) envfree;
    function updateMap(uint k, uint v) external envfree;

rule foo {
	uint v1 = readAtSlotAddress();

	uint preImage;
	uint x; 

	updateMap(preImage, x);

	uint v2 = readAtSlotAddress();

	assert(v1 == v2);

// solidity
contract C {
	uint constant slotAddress = 1000000;

	mapping(uint => uint) map;

	function updateMap(uint k, uint v) public {
		map[k] = v;

	function readAtSlotAddress() public returns (uint r) {
		assembly {
			r := sload(slotAddress)

The function readAtSlotAddress reads from storage at the slot with the number 1000000. The function updateMap updates a mapping; this means it updates storage at a hash computed from its identifier (here 1, since it is the second field in the contract) and the key k. Now, if k is chosen such that keccak(1, k) equals 1000000, the map update would overwrite that storage slot, and thus the assertion in the rule foo would be violated.

However, the Certora Prover will return “not violated” for this assertion, since it assumes that no hash ever collides with the constant 1000000, which occurs in the program.

On the other hand, if we change the contract to leave slotAddress uninitialized, then Certora Prover will return a violation, since then it can choose the values such that keccak(2, preImage) == slotAddress.

Also see this example run for a further illustration of both cases.


The reader may wonder at first whether this means that the Certora Prover computes the inverse value of the Keccak function for some image value (which would be a challenging task in and of itself). This is not the case, in practice the Prover makes up any arbitrary function that fulfills the previously described axioms and also maps that single input to an output accordingly.

Hashing of unbounded data

In the discussion so far we only considered hashes of data whose length is already known before program execution (e.g. a uint variable always has 256 bits). Hashing of unbounded data (typically unbounded arrays, like bytes, uint[], etc.) requires some extra measures, since their implementation requires loops and the Certora Prover internally eliminates all loops in order to achieve better tractability.

The Certora Prover models unbounded hashing similar to how it eliminates loops. The user specifies an upper length bound up to which unbounded hashing should be modeled precisely (using the CLI option --hashing_length_bound) as well as whether this bound is to be assumed or to be verified (using the CLI option --optimistic_hashing).

We demonstrate how these flags work using the following program snippet:

contract C {
	mapping(bytes => uint) m;
	bytes b1, b2, b3;
	uint u, v, w;
	// ...
		require b1.length < 224;
		m[b1] = u;
	// ...
		// no constraints on b2.length
		m[b2] = v; 
	// ...
		// no constraints on b3.length
		m[b3] = v;
		assert(b3.length < 300, "b3 is more than 300 bytes long, unexpectedly")
	// ...

Let us assume that the --hashing_length_bound flag is set to 224 (which corresponds to 7 machine words).

Then, the first hash operation, triggered by the mapping access m[b1], behaves like the hash of a bounded data chunk. The --optimstic_hashing flag has no impact on this hash operation.

The behavior of the second hash operation, triggered by the mapping access m[b2], depends on whether --optimistic_hashing is set.

  • If the --optimistic_hashing flag is not set, the violation of an internal assertion will be reported by the Prover, stating that a chunk of data is being hashed that may exceed the given bound of 224. The reported message will look like this:

Trying to hash a non-constant length array whose length may exceed the bound 
(set in option "--hashing_length_bound", current value is 224). 
Optimistic unbounded hashing is currently deactivated (can be activated via 
option "--optimistic_hashing").
  • If the --optimistic_hashing flag is set, the Prover will internally make an assumption (equivalent to a require statement) on b2 stating that its length cannot exceed 224 bytes.

The third operation, triggered by the mapping access m[b3] behaves like the second, since no length constraint on b3 is made by the program. However, we can see the impact of the --optimistic_hashing flag on the assert command that follows the hash operation: When the flag is set, the assertion will be shown as not violated even though nothing in the program itself prevents b3 from being longer than 300 bytes. This is an example of unsoundness coming from “optimistic” assumptions. (When --optimistic_hashing is not set, then we get a violation from any or all assertions, depending on the configuration of the Certora Prover.)

Examples for Unbounded Hashing

The following collection snippet illustrates the most common use cases for hashing of data that has unbounded length.

contract C {
	mapping(bytes => uint) m;
	uint x, y, z, start, len;
	// ... 
		m[b] = v
	// ... 
		keccak256(abi.encode(x, y, z))
	// ... 
		keccak256(abi.encodePacked(x, y, z))
	// ...
		assembly {
			keccak(start, len)
	// ...

Probably the most common use case is the use of mappings whose keys are an unbounded array (bytes, string, uint[], etc.); any access to such a mapping induces a hash of the corresponding array whose length is often unknown and unbounded.

Further use cases include direct calls of the Keccak function, either directly on Solidity or inside an inline assembly snippet.

Note that the Certora Prover’s static analysis is aware of the ABI encoder. Thus, in many cases, it can figure out that when x, y, z are scalars that keccak256(abi.encode(x, y, z)) is actually a bounded hash of the form hash(x, y, z) as opposed to an unbounded hash of the bytes array that is the result of the encode function.

Background: The Solidity Storage Model

In this subsection we illustrate the consequences on storage integrity if the “injectivity with large gaps” property is not maintained.

For instance consider this contract:

// solidity
contract C {
	uint i;                  // slot 0
	uint[] a;                // slot 1
	mapping(uint => uint) m; // slot 2

	/** Always returns writeToArray (unless hashing is broken). */
	function foo(uint writeToArray, uint writeToMap) public returns (uint) {
		i = u;               // sstore(0, u)
   		a[j] = writeToArray; // sstore(hash(1) + j, writeToArray)
   		m[k] = writeToMap;   // sstore(hash(2, k), writeToMap)
		return a[j];

// CVL
methods { foo(uint, uint) return (uint); };

rule storageIntegrity {
	uint writeToArray, writeToMap;
	require writeToArray != writeToMap;

	uint res = foo(writeToArray, writeToMap)

	assert(res == writeToArray);

The comments of the function foo illustrate how storage is laid out by Solidity. The occurrences of sstore(x, y) in the line comments above denote a storage update of storage address x to value y. The scalar i is stored at storage address 0, which is derived from its slot number in the contract (slots are numbered in order of appearance in the source code). The array a is stored contiguously, starting from slot hash(1). The entries of mapping m are spread out over storage; their locations are computed as the hash of the mapping’s storage slot and the key at which the mapping is being accessed; thus the storage slot used for the entry of m under key k is computed as hash(2, k).

We can see that non-collision of hashes is essential for storage integrity. E.g., if hash(1) + j was equal to hash(2, k) then the operations on a and m would interfere with each other, and foo would return the value of writeToMap rather than the value of writeToArray.


To summarize, the Certora Prover handles hashing in a way that behaves as expected for most hashes.

However, it is good to be aware of limitations of the modeling; i.e. that not all properties of the actual Keccak function are preserved but only the ones that are crucial for practical use cases, which are covered by the “injectivity with large gaps” property.

Furthermore, special attention may be necessary when hashing of unbounded data is required. For this case, Certora Prover relies on user-controlled approximations that are analogous to its handling of loops.