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The Key Differences Between Code Signing Certificates and SSL Certificates

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Introduction

In your quest to enhance cybersecurity, you might have come across the terms code signing certificate and SSL certificate. There has always been a question of whether the two mean the same thing. For starters, both are digital certificates, and both are issued by a certificate authority. However, despite these similarities, the two are totally different tools. 

So, what exactly sets them apart? In this article, we will learn about the major differences between the two digital certificates. But first, let us start by understanding the basics. 

What is a Code Signing Certificate?

Code signing certificate refers to a digital signing technique vital in safeguarding codes and software scripts so that the publisher can securely distribute the software contents over the web. The code signing certificate will design some digital software identity, which is a clear indicator that the code’s author is genuine and that the user can trust the code. The Public Key Infrastructure technology is fully embraced in making this process a success. The author of the certificate will sign the code using a private key. To confirm the author’s identity, the end-user will use the public key to decrypt the signature. 

When a code is not digitally signed, it is easier for a hacker to exploit it and breach the user’s information. 

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Description automatically generated with medium confidence

We have already seen the increased overreliance on mobile and computer devices. For the devices to run efficiently, a user will have to download some additional software. It is usually hard for a user to ascertain whether the code they download can be trusted. Code signing certificates help in decision making, the decision being whether a user should trust the developer and the software. Code signing answers two very vital questions: who signed the code? And, has the code been altered in any way since its signing? Armed with the answers, a user can decide whether to run the code on his device.

What is an SSL Certificate?

Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) certificate is used in establishing secure communications between two communicating ends over the internet. For instance, it encrypts the communication between website servers and web browsers, concealing the data and information to ensure it cannot be deciphered by intruders. SSL certificate is, therefore, a vital security tool every website ought to have. 

It is the SSL certificate that is behind the working of the Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure (HTTPS) through the use of public-key encryption. It is also important to note that SSL certificates do more than just data encryption. The certificate also plays a role in SEO rankings and in establishing trust among web visitors. 

How Does A Code Signing Certificate Work?

To sign a code, executables, or software, a digital certificate authority will have to employ the public key infrastructure (PKI) alongside robust authentication measures. Please note that a code signing certificate works in a manner almost similar to that of the SSL certificate. This is the reason why most  Certificate Authorities sell both.  The process is as follows:

  • First, You will purchase A code signing certificate. The type of certificate you choose will depend on the nature of your organization. There are cheap code signing certificates such as Comodo, and you can also use the EV code signing certificate. 
  • Before issuing the certificate, the certificate authority will first have to verify your identity. The process will differ depending on whether you are an individual or a company. The whole point of identity verification is to ensure that you are what you say and operating in good faith. 
  • Next, you will install the code signing certificate. 
  • Next, you will use the code to sign executables and scripts. Here is where you will be required to add your digital signature. Please note that a digital signature really is not a signature as such but a series of data that can easily be hashed to display the identity of the code owner and determine any alterations in the code. 
  • Lastly, you will distribute your signed code or software. Users will be presented with your signature, which, upon being hashed, will display your identity and determine whether or not the code has been tampered with since it was signed. 

How Does An SSL Certificate Work?

The working of the SSL certificate depends on two concepts, asymmetric cryptography, and symmetric cryptography. Asymmetric cryptography sometimes referred to as public-key cryptography, uses a mathematically-related key pair to perform the encryption and decryption roles. The Public Key is shared with anyone interested in communication. The Private key remains a secret. With asymmetric encryption, data encryption is done using the private key and is decrypted using the related public key. 

In symmetric encryption, only a single key is used. The key plays both the encryption and decryption roles. Both the sender of the information and the recipient should have the key. The key is only known to the two parties. 

Comparison Between Code Signing Certificate and SSL Certificate

To better understand the differences between the two digital certificates, we will compare them based on their function, identity verification, warrant availability, validation requirements, and expiry. 

Function

The principal purpose of an SSL certificate is to encrypt all the data shared between a website and users’ browsers. To achieve this, the SSL certificate uses 256-bit encryption. You should note that all types of SSL certificates give the same level of encryption. In short, a cheap SSL certificate will be as effective as the most expensive one. 

On the other hand, the primary role of the code signing certificate is to hash and sign software. As such, if the software is altered in any way, the hashing value will change, which implies that the software might no longer be safe. 

Identity Verification

It is worth noting that for both SSL and code signing certificates, the certificate authority will verify the identity of the person or organization requesting the certificate before finally issuing it. 

With an SSL certificate, the nature of the identity verification process will depend on the type of certificate the user is requesting. Domain Validation SSL certificates usually have shorter validation processes. One is only required to prove that he owns the domain with which the certificate is to be attached. For Organization Validation and Extended Validation SSL certificates, the identity verification process is strict and takes a lot of time. The organization requesting the certificate will have to submit all relevant information about the business. 

For a code signing certificate, the certificate authority will have to first verify the registration details of the requestor, including addresses and phone contacts. For individual developers, certificate authorities require that the requestor present them with a notarized form to validate their government-issued photo identification. Additionally, the CA will complete the verification through a phone call. 

Warrant Availability

Paid TLS certificates have warranties. As such, in the event of decryption failure or any other faults caused by the certificate, the certificate authority becomes liable and will reimburse the damages caused to the victim. Depending on the SSL certificate type, the warranty amount usually ranges from $10,000 to $1,750 000. 

Code signing certificates do not have warranties. 

Validation Requirements

SSL certificates offer three levels of validation; Domain Validation, Extended Validation, and Organization Validation. Code signing certificates, on the other hand, offer two validation types; organization and extended validation. 

Expiry. 

SSL certificates tend to have short lifespans, and they expire after two years. Upon expiration, the website will display a “not secure’ error message such as the one shown below. 

Not Secure Browser Warning
Connection not private Warning

Code signing certificates also have a two-year validity period. However, if the publisher has utilized timestamping,  the verified name of the publisher will remain intact even after the certificate has expired. The timestamping feature is enabled using the private key. So, even after the code expires, customers will still verify who the original owner of the code was. 

Final Word

SSL certificates and code signing certificates are two digital certificates used for different purposes. The two can be used to earn the user trust of your target audience. Software publishers can use the code signing certificate to secure their codes, and the SSL certificate can be used to secure websites from hacking threats. Users need to understand the difference between the two and know how they work to achieve their purposes. 

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