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Code signing employs PKI technologies such as keys, certificates, and digital signatures to ensure the identity and integrity of software. Technology companies share and distribute code through networks with inconsistent and varying security policies, potentially exposing the code to manipulation, corruption or theft.
Many software providers are now making their product available over the internet. As such, it is imperative that code published on the internet be seen as trustworthy by the user who downloads it. While many browsers provide a notice to verify the code’s authenticity, no browser can determine that the code has not been tampered with prior to delivery. Therefore, a more active approach must be taken to make the Internet a reliable medium for software distribution.
Digital signatures help maintain the electronic integrity and authenticity of code by associating it with a software vendor’s unique signature. In this way, distributing software on the Internet is no longer an anonymous activity as digital certificates ensure accountability, just as a manufacturer’s brand name does on packaged software.
A certificate is a set of data that completely identifies an entity, and is issued by a certification authority (CA). The data set includes the entity’s public cryptographic key. When the sender of a message signs the message with its private key, the recipient of the message can use the sender’s public key (retrieved from the certificate either sent with the message or possibly available elsewhere in the directory service) to verify the sender’s identity.
Preventing software counterfeiting has always been a challenge for publishers. Over time, security measures such as tamper-proof packaging and unique licensing keys were developed to minimize bootlegs and unauthorized copies of software distributed on disks. The Internet lacks the subtle security provided by packaging, shelf space, shrink wrap, and the like. Without an assurance of the software’s integrity, and without knowing who published the software, it’s difficult for end users to know how much to trust software. In addition, Windows, Java, and Apple require code to be compliant with their digital signing requirements. When code is not correlated to a known publisher a security warning message indicating “Unknown Publisher” is issued requiring the user must authorize the program to run on their machine. For this reason software publishers are facing increased pressure to sign code.
Hardware Security Module’s Role
To obtain a certificate from a CA, a software publisher must meet the criteria for commercial publishing certificate. It is recommended that applicants generate and store their private key using a dedicated hardware solution, which can be an HSM.
Hardware Security Module (HSM) protects the identity, whether it is the server, Virtualization server or the user. SafeNet HSMs take the security one step further by storing the signing material in a hardware device, thus ensuring authenticity and integrity of a code file.
A software vendor built their business on providing affordable and user friendly software over the internet. With the release of Microsoft Windows Vista came the requirement that downloaded code be signed prior to running. If the code was not signed, a warning message would be issued when prospects attempted to install the vendor’s software. These messages explained that the download lacked digital code signing certificates to authenticate the source of the software. As result, many prospects did not trust the authenticity of the downloaded software and sales over the internet began to slip.
In order to reassure customers that they provide trusted content, the software vendor looked for a solution to sign their code using private and public key systems. The solution was to implement an enterprise PKI featuring VeriSign as the Certificate Authority and a SafeNet HSM for cryptographic key storage. The SafeNet HSM was the right choice because it offered FIPS 140-2 Level 3 and Common Criteria certification in a tamper-proof hardware device. With the PKI in place, prospects and customers gained the confidence that the content they were downloading was authentic and could be trusted. The software vendor was able to instill user confidence in their brand, eliminate security alerts, and increase internet sales of their software.