All you need to know about Code Signing Certificates

Code signing certificates authenticate software developers. They also guarantee that their code remains unaltered by affirming the source and confirming the integrity of the code.

For developers, this is key for their reputation as it helps shield the potential users of their programs from potential harm due to malicious or tampered software. In this guide, we explain the key basics you may want to know about code signing certificates including;

  • The different types of code signing certificates
  • How to choose the right code signing certificate for your business and
  • The best practices for implementing code signing certificates

Keep reading!

What are the Various Types of Code Signing Certificates?

Code signing certificates, including affordable options like a cheap code signing certificate, come in various types. Each type of code signing certificate you will find online is tailored to specific needs. For example, if you’re looking to build public trust, you can choose; Organization Validation (OV) or Standard Certificates and Extended Validation (EV) Certificates.

  • Organization Validation (OV) or Standard Certificates: These validate the legitimacy of the entity behind the software, confirming the organization’s details. They are widely used for general software distribution and provide a reasonable level of assurance to users regarding the software’s origin. OV certificates are suitable for most software applications and are mostly preferred for distributing applications, plugins, and drivers.
  • Extended Validation (EV) Certificates: EV certificates prominently display the developer’s name in browsers to enhance user confidence. They’re particularly crucial for highly sensitive applications and situations where establishing absolute trust is paramount like in financial applications, critical infrastructure software, and high-security environments.

When shopping for a code signing certificate, do keep in mind that the publisher you’re working with may have their own requirements as far as code signing is concerned. Let’s use the example of Microsoft and iOS for instance.

Microsoft often mandates EV code signing certificates while iOS necessitates Apple code signing certificates. That said, the best code signing certificate for your needs will depend on the level of trust you’re hoping to build and of course, the nature of the software you’re safeguarding.

For widely distributed applications with standard security requirements, OV certificates are generally sufficient. However, for critical applications or those involving sensitive data, investing in an EV certificate is prudent.

What Other Key Factors should you consider when choosing a Code Signing Certificate?

As simple as it may sound, choosing a code signing certificate isn’t something to take lightly. There are several factors to consider with one of the most key ones being the reputation of the issuing Certificate Authority.

Trust is key to the successful execution of your code and your CA plays a key role in this. A reputable CA ensures that the certificate isn’t only recognized widely but also trusted by users on several key platforms.

Another key consideration is the cost against the value you’re getting from the certificate as cheaper Code Signing certificates may be tempting but lacking when it comes to the security features you can be guaranteed in higher-tier alternatives. If you’re looking to ensure more stringent security requirements, consider an Extended Validation Code Signing Certificate.

To add to those two issues, also consider the compatibility of the certificate with different platforms, software and customer support. Check to ensure that your certificate supports multiple operating systems, and file types and that customer service is easily accessible.

What are the Best Practices for Implementing Code Signing Certificates?

Getting a code signing certificate doesn’t guarantee foolproof security of your code against tampering. This is especially true if you’re not keen to observe the best practices for implementing the code signing certificates. That said, here are six best practices for Code Signing Certificates implementation;

  1. Protecting Private Keys with Cryptographic Hardware Products: This is a key step to protect your piece of code from potential attacks. With cryptographic hardware certified at FIPS 140 Level 2 or higher, you’re guarded against unauthorized export of the key to software. And, a randomly generated password with a minimum of 16 characters, comprising uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers, and special characters, adds an extra layer of protection.
  2. Understanding the Difference between Test Signing and Release Signing: Recognizing this difference is key. Compared to production code signing, test signing necessitates fewer security access controls. Test certificates, which can be self-signed or from an internal test CA, should chain to a distinct root certificate. This root certificate must be isolated from the one used for publicly released products. This isolation ensures that test certificates are only trusted within the designated test environment.
  3. Virus Scanning Code before Signing: Code signing can authenticate the source of code but it doesn’t guarantee the safety or quality of the code. That said, it is best to proceed with caution when incorporating code from external sources. A good best practice in this regard is to implement robust virus scanning processes before signing to enhance the overall quality of the released code.
  4. Revoking Compromised Certificates: Make it a habit to promptly report signed malware or key compromises to the CA. If compromise is suspected or confirmed, see to it that the code signing certificate is revoked. You may also want to ensure the code is time stamped so you have the luxury of selecting a revocation date before the compromise to ensure minimal impact on previously signed code.
  5. Minimizing Access to Private Keys: It may also help to make it a rule to limit connections to computers with keys as well as restrict the number of users with key access. This can help you mitigate several security loopholes. To add to those minimized access to private keys, employ physical security controls to further reduce unauthorized access to the keys.
  6. Time-stamping Code: With time-stamping, your code can still be verified even past the certificate expiration date. It can also still be verified even if the certificate is already revoked. The maximum validity period for time-stamp certificates is 135 months. They allow for the signed software to be validated for up to 11 years. With timestamping, you can rest assured that users will be able to trust your software’s authenticity long after the certificate has expired.

It’s a Wrap!

Cyber threats are only increasing and there is no better thing you could do than ensuring the integrity and trustworthiness of your code. Code signing certificates give your users the assurance that the software they’re downloading is authentic and unaltered.

So, choose the right type of certificate. It is a critical decision in your software development process which may seem simple but a giant step towards building trust and safeguarding your customers from potential threats that come with malicious software.

By Aamer Khan Lodhi

Top-Rated Freelancer, Digital Marketer, Blogger, SEO, Link Builder

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