What is Code Signing? What are the Code Signing use cases?

Glossary Image for Code Signing

When downloading software from the Internet, consumers must always be wary of 3rd parties masquerading as the software provider. With a resource like code signing, software can be assured it is coming from the proper source. Code signing is an operation where a software developer or distributor digitally signs the file being sent out, to assure users that they are receiving software that does what the creator says it will. The signature acts as proof the code has not been tampered with or modified from its original form.

The Importance of Code Signing

With the ability to download so much software from the Internet, code signing has become more and more important for software developers and distributors to use. An attacker can easily mask themselves as a legitimate source to plant malware on a victim’s computer. Code signing assures these types of attacks cannot occur, as long as users only download software deemed safe by their operating system. Nowadays, when software is downloaded onto a computer, the Operating System checks for the digital certificate created through code signing, to assure the safety of the software attempting to be installed. If no digital certificate is found, then the user is alerted to this fact, and prompted to either stop or continue the installation.

How Does Code Signing Work?

Diagram for Code Signing

Code signing has several steps, beginning with the creation of a unique key pair. The key pair created is a public-private key pair, since code signing utilizes public key cryptography. Once the key pair is created, the public key is sent to a trusted certificate authority, or CA, which verifies that the key belongs to the owner by returning the public key to the software developer, along with a digitally signed code signing certificate. A CA is a highly trusted entity given the responsibility of signing and generating digital certificates. The certificate, with the attached public key, returned by the CA confirms the trustworthiness of the developer and any software they create.

Now that the public key and a digital code signing certificate have been returned, the code of the software is run through a hash function. A hash function is a one-way function that turns the text put into the function into an arbitrary mixture of values that cannot be reversed. This provides a value to compare with when the data is sent to the consumer. The output, or digest, is then encrypted by the private key. The reason the private key is used for encryption, as opposed to the public key, is because the developer wants anyone to be able to read the message, but no one to be able to tamper with it. The digest, code signing certificate, and hash function are now combined into a signature block and placed into the software, which is sent to the consumer.

When the software is received, the consumer’s computer first checks the authenticity of the code signing certificate. Once the authenticity is confirmed, the digest is then decrypted with the public key of the originally created key pair. The hash function is then used on the software’s code, and the resulting digest is compared to the digest sent by the developer. If the digests match, then the software is safe to install.

Advantages of Code Signing

Code signing provides many benefits, including the ones listed below.

  • With code signing, users can trust the software they are downloading, and need not worry about downloading malware onto their computer or mobile device. This authentication acts as a two-way street, with code signing promoting trust on both sides of the exchange. Not only can the user trust the sender, but the developer can also trust their software got to the correct location and is not being misused.
  • Since many of the biggest trusted mobile and web application stores, such as the IOS AppStore or Google’s Play Store, require code signing, developers can distribute their software through even more platforms.

Weaknesses of Code Signing

There are several weaknesses to code signing, as well, including:

    • Improper management of the private key created at the beginning of the code signing process can result in the insecurity of the software being sent. If a legitimate private key is stolen, then the attacker can encode their malicious software with the private key, which will tell the user that the software is safe to use, even if it isn’t.
    • Threat actors can obtain a trusted certificate, but what deters most attackers is the need to provide identification information to obtain a certificate. If malicious software is distributed with a legitimate certificate, the developer can be identified and stopped.
  • If the user allows the installation of the software, even if the Operating System says it is not code-signed, then code signing is rendered useless.

To prevent these weaknesses, there are best practices that should be followed.

    • For the protection of encryption keys, Hardware Security Modules, or HSMs, should be used. An HSM is a specialized, highly trusted physical device. It is a network computer which performs all the major cryptographic operations including encryption, decryption, authentication, key management, key exchange, etc. They are tamper-resistant and use extremely secure cryptographic operations.
    • Along with HSMs, the principle of least privilege should be used with keys, to ensure only users who need the key have access to it.
  • Finally, caution should always be used with code signing. Only download and install software that is code signed by a trusted CA.
Glossary Image for the middle of the glossary terms

Who Uses Code Signing?

Code signing is used in any commercially packaged and distributed software. Trusted application stores, like the IOS AppStore or the Google Play Store, require code signing for a piece of software to be distributed on their platform. A lot of consumers will not download software unless it uses code signing, so even developers not on big-name platforms will implement code signing. There are several different types of certificates to use, dependent on what systems the software being distributed works with. Desktop certificates include Microsoft, Java, Microsoft Office, and VBA, and Adobe AI. Examples of mobile certificates are Windows Phone, Windows Phone Private Enterprise, Java Verified, Android, and Brew.

Some examples of code-signed software are Windows applications, Windows software updates, Apple software, Microsoft Office VBA objects and macros, .jar, .air, and .airi files, and any type of executable file. For IOS applications, code signing uses Xcode. To upload software to the Itunes store, the user must have a valid Apple Developer ID with a valid certificate or profile before Xcode will sign the software. To integrate an application, the developer will need to use a development certificate. In order to run the app on any device, a distribution certificate must be used to send out the app and test it. Other platforms, like Windows, just require the use of a trusted certificate authority. C# and Visual Studio also offer their own code signing solutions. Encryption Consulting provides its own code signing solution called CodeSign Secure.

Code Signing Solution - CodeSign Secure

CodeSign Secure provides a secure and flexible solution for implementing code signing on in an on-premises, Cloud, or hybrid environment. Security keys can be created or imported into HSMs, such as the AWS Cloud, Azure Key Vault, Mac Key Chain/ Secure Enclave, Thales, Utimaco, or nCipher HSM. Securing cryptographic keys within an HSM eliminates the risks associated with stolen, corrupted or misused keys. CodeSign Secure is available on Windows, Linux, or Macintosh systems, and seamlessly integrates with your existing build processes. Windows files like .exe, .dll, .msi, .cab, and .ocx, RPM files on Linux, jar files, Mac OS software, Andorid apps, iOS apps, PDF files, and Docker images can all be signed by CodeSign Secure, ensuring their safety and originality to the end user. CodeSign Secure includes fully automated and customizable approval workflows, and automated malware and virus scans using your preferred scanners.

Our service integrates with Corporate Active Directory and provides complete audit trails and reports available at all times. Multi-factor authentication can also be enabled with CodeSign Secure. The robust access control system which can be integrated with LDAP and customizable workflows mitigates risks associated with granting wrong access to unauthorized users, allowing them to sign code with malicious certificates. The open architecture framework of CodeSign Secure provides the utmost flexibility in integrating with a user’s environment, without altering their existing build processes, be it traditional SDLC, Agile or DevOps. The On-Premises model of CodeSign Secure has the server and client modules installed locally, and integrates with any existing HSM, for easy and swift access to keys. The Cloud model has the organizations subscribe to CodeSign Secure services online. The hybrid model has server and client modules installed locally within the customer premise, while the private keys for signing certificates can be stored on cloud HSM and vice-versa.