What is a Timestamp in Code Signing? How Does Timestamping Work?

Code signing certificates play a crucial role in assuring users of the authenticity and integrity of software applications. However, these certificates have a limited validity period, typically ranging from one to three years. During this period, developers may encounter challenges if the certificate expires, as users might face warnings or errors during the installation process. To address this issue, timestamping comes into play. In this article, we will explore what a timestamp in code signing is, its significance, and how timestamping works to ensure the continued trustworthiness of signed software. Whether you are considering a cheap code signing certificate or an EV code signing certificate, understanding timestamping is essential.

What is a Timestamp in Code Signing?

A timestamp in code signing is a critical component that adds a layer of security and reliability to digitally signed software applications. Code signing is the process of applying a digital signature to software code to confirm its authenticity and integrity. The digital signature is created using a code signing certificate issued by a trusted Certificate Authority (CA). However, code signing certificates have an expiry date, typically ranging from one to three years. When the certificate expires, the digital signature becomes invalid, potentially causing issues during the installation and usage of the software.

To address this problem and ensure the continued trustworthiness of signed applications, timestamping is employed. When a software developer signs an application with a code signing certificate, they have the option to include a timestamp in the signature. This timestamp, generated by a timestamping authority, indicates the date and time of the code signing event. The timestamp is then added to the digital signature of the software, serving as proof that the software was signed at a specific point in time.

The significance of timestamping lies in its ability to prevent expired code signing certificates from affecting the integrity of the signed software. When users attempt to install or run a digitally signed application, the operating system or user’s security software verifies the digital signature. If the code signing certificate is still valid, the signature is checked against the software’s contents, and the application is considered trusted. However, if the certificate has expired, the timestamp comes into play.

During verification, the operating system or security software checks the timestamp to ensure that the application was signed before the certificate’s expiration. If the timestamp confirms that the software was signed within the validity period of the certificate, the application is considered valid and can be trusted, even if the code signing certificate has expired. This prevents users from encountering warning messages or security alerts during installation or usage.

Significance of Timestamping:

Avoids Expired Certificate Warnings: When a code signing certificate expires, the digital signature becomes invalid, and users may encounter warnings or errors during the software installation process. By timestamping the signature, the application’s integrity is preserved, allowing users to verify its authenticity regardless of the certificate’s expiration.

Long-term Reliability: Software applications can have a long shelf life, and some may continue to be used for years. Timestamping ensures that even if the original certificate becomes obsolete, the software can still be verified as legitimate and secure.

Security and Trust: Timestamping enhances user trust by reassuring them that the software was signed by a verified entity at a specific time. This prevents malicious actors from backdating a signature, as the timestamp is issued by a trusted third party.

How Does Timestamping Work?

Requesting a Timestamp:

When signing a software application, the developer creates a cryptographic hash of the application’s contents and encrypts it using their code signing certificate. They then send this hash to a timestamping authority, which securely timestamps the hash using its own digital signature.

Embedding the Timestamp:

The timestamp, together with the encrypted hash, is returned to the developer. The timestamp is then embedded within the signature of the software application. The timestamped signature includes information about the time of signing, making it verifiable even after the code signing certificate has expired.

Verification Process:

During the software installation process, the operating system or user’s security software verifies the code signature. If the code signing certificate is still valid, the signature is checked against the software’s contents. However, if the certificate has expired, the timestamp comes into play. The timestamp authority’s digital signature is verified, ensuring that the software was signed before the certificate’s expiration.

Choosing the Right Certificate:

Whether you opt for a cheap code signing certificate or an EV code signing certificate, timestamping remains an important consideration. Many reputable Certificate Authorities offer code signing certificates with timestamping options to enhance the security and reliability of your signed software.

Conclusion:

Timestamping is a vital component of code signing that ensures the continued trustworthiness of software applications, even after the code signing certificate expires. By understanding the significance of timestamping and how it works, developers can maintain user confidence in their software and mitigate potential installation issues caused by expired certificates. Whether you choose a cheap code signing certificate or an EV code signing certificate, timestamping adds an extra layer of security and long-term reliability to your software, assuring users that their applications are authentic and free from tampering. Embrace timestamping as an integral part of your code signing process and uphold the trust of your users in the ever-evolving landscape of software security.

Related posts

Leave a Comment