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What is Code Signing? How it Works?

Background

Times have always been changing, bringing newer opportunities and challenges for us to explore and learn more. It is a similar case with technology, we have experienced a steep spike in technological evolution over the last few decades, this has come with its own set of challenges. We are seldom buying software products we need from physical stores. Everything has moved up to the web and more recently all services and products are turning cloud-native.

We download products and services from the internet. Therefore, the safety, security, and authenticity of software products and services procured online are important. To give you a broad overview, code signing solves the trust issues generally associated with software products. Whether you are a thriving software development organization, service provider, budding entrepreneur, or a start-up, you must acquire code signing certificates.

What Is Code Signing and Its Significance?

Code singing is a best practice that every technology professional or enthusiast should prioritize in their line of software development. Whether you are a software developer, company, or an end-user, you will experience code signing and its importance in your day-to-day life. It is a digital signature issued to your software programs by a Certificate Authority (CA).

Software developers and publishers use the hash function to encrypt and sign-off their code. The signature not only authenticates the software program but also covers the intellectual property (IP) of the product. Software codes that are not code-signed can raise eyebrows and often prone to malicious activities.

Unsigned code-based programs show the Unknown Source dialog box, if you choose to proceed then you are agreeing to risk your systems. Often the software programs that are not code-signed are blocked by anti-virus installed on your system.

Code signing generates trust among your clientele. Assures them about the authenticity of your product that it is not carrying any malicious program. Therefore, you cannot publish a certificate to yourself. Cheap code signing certificates are also not available off the shelf, you need to submit your request for a code signing certificates to one of the trusted CAs, which are as follows:

  • Custom
  • Entrust
  • GlobalSign
  • Sectigo (formerly Comodo)
  • Digi cert
Code Signing Types

Before we dwell on how code signing works? Let us take a quick look at the types of code signing certificates issued. There are two kinds of code signing certificates:

  • Standard
  • Extended Validation

Standard: The standard code signing certificates are the type that displays Microsoft SmartScreen warning message to your customers. The warning dialog box persists until you gain enough market trust via downloads and a reduced number of defects.

Extended Validation (EV): The EV code signing certificates are obtained after a detailed verification. Post EV, users do not experience frequent warming messages.

The Code Signing Process

After thorough verification, CA issues a code signing certificate which is a public and private key. Use the key to sign your software products and secure the code. The keys are valid for a limited period, provide legitimacy and authentication to your software products.

You must be curious to know how the code-signing process flows, see the following steps for a quick understanding:

  1. You start by deploying a software product with a trusted code signing certificate.
  2. The product code, if code-signed, carries is a digital signature ( a hash mark).
  3. When the software product is downloaded and you agree to proceed further, the digital signature is displayed.
  4. On your clients’ machine, the public key is used to decrypt the signature and ascertain the code signing certificate-based authentication.
  5. The hash values are validated, if the validation is a success, then download and further usage are allowed by client-side systems.

Note: Any hash mismatch results in an error message that prompts users to stall the usage. This is subject to user-side security and protocols.

Since the process is known to you now, let us try to sum up how to code singing works.

  • If you are a publisher, then you apply for a code certificate by sending your requirements to one of the trusted CAs.
  • Choose the type of certificate you want, CAs will do verification of your documents, digital, and physical addresses.
  • After detailed verification, if the verification is successful, you can generate a hash executable file that you can append to your software programs.
  • Use the private key to encrypt your code and prevent hacking and other malicious cyber activities.

You can now download the product with trust and confidence. The public key issued to your code signing certificate decrypts the hash. If the public and private keys match, you can use the program. The successful match only affirms that your software product and its code is safe to use. The program is code signed, without any hacks by unverified users.