Code Signing vs. SSL Certificates: Differences, Similarities and Functioning of the Two

The code signing and SSL certificates are used to make your digital presence and devices safer so that your devices and data stay untouched by undesired and unwelcomed invaders. But what do both these certificates do? Moreover, what’s the major difference between both these certificates?

Code Signing and SSL Certificates are digital certificates that work on Public Key Infrastructure (PKI), which we will understand further in this blog as we learn more about the certificates and their working. However, since the digital world is on a roll and the internet is as accessible and important as ever, it is high time we all started having a basic understanding that would keep us secure.

Let’s get a basic understanding of what both Code Signing and SSL Certificates are and then get into their functionalities, similarities, and differences.

What is Code Signing Certificate, and How Does It Work?

A code signing certificate is a digital technology that authenticates code/software publishers. In other words, it helps end-users verify the identity of the publishers and stay away from fraudulent software. 

As you can see in the above image, the fraudsters made apps like these that would look legitimate but would illegitimately make the users poor by taking away money as soon as they put their bank details in the app.

Code signing ensures the authenticity of the downloadable software so that the users don’t get into trouble. This serves two major benefits:

  1. When you try to download software or an app, it will show you the official publisher’s name, and you can decide if you want to download it from Google LLC or Gogool AppModders.
  1. As the legitimate software publisher has signed the code signing certificate and put up the file for download, it cannot be software that is twitched or tampered with. This way, the users get official software.

If the publisher does not perform code signing of the software, it results in the device letting the user know that the app or software they are installing might put their device at risk by showing a warning window. Look at the below image that shows what a warning window looks like:

If the software is sourced from a legitimate publisher, it will show the below image and ask you to move forward in the installation process.

How does Code Signing Work?

When the development and successful testing of the software are achieved, the software publisher performs Code Signing for the software.

Step 1 – The publisher approaches certificate authority (CA) to purchase a code signing certificate.

Step 2 – The CA verifies the authenticity of the publisher and sends the certificate to the user (the method will depend on the type of certificate).

Step 3: The Publisher uses Private Key to sign the certificate with a digital signature.

Step 4 – This digital signature is now hashed with the code of the software. The hashing process seals the code of the software.

Step 5 – When an individual tries to download the software, the system first verifies the digital signature.

Step 6 – A hash value is generated once the digital signature is verified. This system-generated hash value must be the same as the hash value at the time of code signing.

Step 7 – When both hash values match, it means there were no alterations to the code and it’s safe to install.

Now that we know about code signing certificates, let’s see what SSL Certificates are and how they play a major role in data security over the internet.

What is an SSL Certificate, and What does it Do?

When you visit an SSL-enabled website, you form an encrypted connection with it that secures all data-in-transit. In simple terms, it doesn’t allow your data to be seen or tampered by cyber perpetrators. Most of today’s websites are secured with 256-bit encryption, which is almost in conquerable, even for super computers.

You can know if a website is secured with an SSL Certificate simply by looking at the padlock on the side of the web address, as shown in the below image.

If a website doesn’t have an SSL Certificate, the browser shows a warning message to the user about the security risk of sharing data with the respective website. 

Have a look at the below image for better understanding:

To get an SSL Certificate, the website owner must contact a Certificate Authority (CA) and get their identity verified. The CA then authenticates the data provided by the website owner and provides an SSL Certificate that the server can then integrate into the website. 

How does SSL Certificate Encryption work?

When a user comes to a website, they need to know if it is secure. Now that the users know about the padlock. Here’s how SSL encryption works.

Step 1: The user visits to the website

Step 2: Browser asks the server (website) to identify itself

Step 3: Server sends a copy of its SSL Certificate

Step 4: The browser authenticates the SSL Certificate through the private key and sends a message to the server. 

Step 5: Server then sends a symmetric key that both entities will use to communicate.

Step 6: Encryption is now in place, and the data shared to and fro will be encrypted using a 256-bit encryption algorithm.

Now that we know the working of both the digital certificates let’s get into the details of what makes them so similar and different from each other.

Code Signing and SSL Certificates: How Similar Are The Two?

There are fewer similarities than differences between the two. But it is necessary to discuss them as we leave no page unturned today.

  • Role of the CA: The CAs provide the Code Signing and SSL Certificates once they have validated the data provided by the requesting authority.
  • Based on PKI: Both certificates are based on the PKI infrastructure. Therefore, both certificates use private and public keys to sign and encrypt the website data or software.

These are some of the similarities between both certificates. But real talk starts now. Let’s jump in and see the differences between code signing certificates and encryption certificates.

Code Signing Certificate vs. SSL Certificate: 7 Differences. Between & Within

It’s obvious now that both certificates work for two distinct purposes. Yet, that’s not all to it. There’s more; we cannot let it pass without being discussed. So, let’s see the difference between signing certificate and encryption certificate

Purpose 

Code Signing Certificates cover the software, scripts, and executables. The SSL Certificates encrypt the data being shared between browsers and web servers.

Validation Level

Code signing certificates come in three types based on validation level: Individual, Organization and Extended Validation. Whereas SSL certificates are categorized in Domain, Organization and Extended Validation. As you can see, there’s no provision for individual certificates in SSL certificates. 

Verification process 

The Code Signing Certificate requests require the requesting entity to submit business details, addresses, and contact information. There is also a deeper verification method that some of the software publishers use to ensure the end-users that they are the official publishers.

The SSL Encryption Certificates require the website owners to experience a thorough vetting process in Extended Validation, while the Domain Validation provides the SSL Certificates to the domain owners almost immediately.

Key Storage

Be it DV, OV or EV SSL certificate, the private key is stored on your server. You don’t need a hardware token to store it.

However, when it comes to code signing certificates, the EV certificates require you to store your private key in a hardware security module (HSM). From 15th November 2022, OV code signing certificates will also require the same.

Checking Authenticity

When you get to the web address bar, you will find a padlock if the website is secured. In the case of Extended validation, you may find an organization name too. Finally, a website with no SSL Certificate will show you a triangle warning sign.

In the case of Code Signing certificates, once the verification process is done, the users installing or downloading the software will see the official publisher’s name and know that the publisher is legit and not the duplicate one.

Warranties

The SSL Certificates have varied warranty limits for different validation levels. Yet, the minimum warranty level starts from $5,000.

The Code Signing Certificates generally provide a standard warranty of $50,000. While in the case of SSL Certificates, the starting limit is low, the warranty level can go as large as millions of dollars.

Expiry Of The Certificates

Both certificates expire after 2 years. Once the certificate has expired, the users visiting your website will see the warning sign, and your publisher name will no longer be available on the software.

However, in case of code signing certificates, you can timestamp your software, so that users can still see that you were the original software publisher when the certificate was still valid.

Code Signing Certificates vs. SSL Certificates: Side-by-Side Difference

FactorsCode Signing CertificatesSSL/TLS Certificates
Secures…Software, scrip and executablesWebsites
Validation levelsOrganization ValidationIndividual ValidationExtended ValidationDomain ValidationOrganization ValidationExtended Validation
In the absence of certificateUnknown publisher messageWebsite safety warning sign
Public Key InfrastructureX.509 PKIX.509 PKI
Expiry2 Years2 Years
Time Stamp AvailabilityYesNo (involves site seals)

Ending the Discussion

There can’t be a debate about the two in comparison as both certificates serve very distinct and important roles. Both certificates are always around us whenever we install new apps or software and visit multiple websites in a week or month. 

We hope this blog post helped you get a clear understanding of the differences between code signing certificates and SSL certificates.

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