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How to Secure and Manage Code Signing Certificate

The need for trust in today’s digital world is unprecedented. Software users need guaranteed evidence that the program they are using is valid.

Protecting and handling code signing certificates validates the creator of the application and proves that the code has not been changed or fiddled with since it has been signed.

Trustable code signing certificates are meant to confirm the legitimacy of the developer and the application, but what protects the credibility of these certificates? These certificates can also be sold or used by hackers to develop malicious applications.

Developers should take extra precautions to secure private keys associated with the code signing certificates to prevent problems. A seamless, safe code signing procedure protects your company and gives inherent confidence to your software users.

Before moving ahead to know the tips to secure a code signing certificate, let us first get into how to get a code signing certificate and why you need it:

How to get a code signing certificate?

Whether you are working individually or in an organization, you need a code signing certificate to validate the authenticity of your software. Your software users need this certificate to validate code legitimacy.

Whether you want to buy cheap SSL certificates or code signing certificates, you should buy them from a well-known and trustworthy certificate provider or a certification authority (CA).

To get a code signing certificate, you have to verify your identity with the certification authority. CA takes 1-2 weeks to perform a complete check of you and your company. After the verification process is completed, the CA will send you the certificate via email or by any other means.

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After getting your code signing certificate, you can use it to sign your software – that validates the authenticity of your application and enhances customers’ trust as well. Once the application is signed, it then cannot be changed without the appropriate key. If you wish to update the software, you will use the same certificate and private keys to make changes to it.

If you are working under the Open-Source license, then you should buy an open-source code signing certificate to validate your software.

Why you should go with a code signing certificate?

A code signing certificate allows you to attach a digital signature on a program, app upgrade, or executable in such a way that its validity and legitimacy can be confirmed prior to installation and implementation.

Your client base should be in a position to trust your apps. A code signing certificate creates trust in two different ways—by verifying the author and validating the integrity of the program.

It also ensures your clients that the software has not been updated since it was first signed. The code signing certificate lets you stop the extremely irritating Windows SmartScreen ‘Unknown Publisher’ alert.

In case a hacker has gotten access to the private keys, he/she can sign malicious software with your certificate. The users will still trust it as it will have the signatures of a valid organization and end up being a target of malicious actors.

This will not only negatively impact your customers but will also destroy your company’s reputation – which you surely do not want. So before buying a code signing certificate you should read this Difference between Code Signing Certificate & SSL Certificate that will surely clear your all doubts.

How you can safely code signing certificates?

Code signing certificates confirm the validity of your software and build a trusting relationship with your customers. But, the biggest issue with these certificates is the security of private keys mapped to them.

If somehow, a cybercriminal gets access to the private keys then he/she can create damaging applications with your signs on them. By doing this, the attackers can harm the customers that trust your reputation. This results in the loss of users’ trust in your application and company as well – that is not a good sign for your organization.

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To prevent yourself from this unacceptable condition, follow the following safety measures:

Reduce access to private keys

  • Access to the devices or computers having private keys should be limited and only given to approved employees. 
  • You should apply strict physical as well as software security techniques to maintain rigorous transparency for the use of private keys. 

Use cryptographic hardware products to secure private keys

  • At the minimum, use a Federal Information Processing Standard (FIPS) 140-2 Level 2 or better.
  • Cryptographic hardware products stop the exportation of private keys, where they can be attacked.
  • The cryptographic hardware product holding the private keys must be physically secured to avoid theft.
  • Make sure that the device containing the private keys is protected with long random passwords that have upper case letters, lower case letters, numerals, etc.

Time-stamp your code

  • Time-stamping expands the trust beyond the duration of validity of the code signing certificate. It allows the code to be validated even after the certification time has ended or the certificate has been canceled. The termination depends on a particular date and the signatures given before the cancellation date stay legitimate.
  • Timestamp code signing certificates can authenticate the signed application for a long duration – up to 11 years.

Know the difference between release-signing and test-signing

  • A test signing license is meant to sign pre-release application builds and is considered trustworthy only in the testing environment. The test signing certificate can be signed by yourself or by an internal certification authority that is trusted inside the company’s internal network.
  • The release signing license is utilized to sign the development code to be delivered to customers all around the globe. Users around the world will trust the root certificate used to validate this officially released software.
  • Establish a different code-signing framework to sign the pre-release code. Test-signing private keys and licenses require less strict safety access monitoring than release signing certificates and keys.
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Validate the code to be signed

  • Every software submitted for signature must be firmly validated before it is authorized and published.
  • Establish a code signing submission and validation system to avoid unauthorized or fraudulent applications from being signed.
  • Keep the record of all code signing operations for scrutinizing and/or incident response objectives.

Use anti-virus software to scan the code before signing

  • Code signing does not guarantee the protection or performance of the app; it only validates the author and whether or not the software has been updated after it was first signed.
  • Remain cautious when incorporating code from a third party.
  • Use anti-virus testing to enhance the effectiveness of the issued code.

Revoke compromised certificates

  • If there is a failure of privacy, the matter must be notified to the CA. 
  • Breached keys or signed malware of criminal code will necessitate the cancellation of a code signing certificate. 
  • Suppose all the code has been time-stamped, the date of revocation can be selected before the violation has happened. This ensures that the code validated before the date of termination has not been affected.
  • If a safer code is published, the revocation would also have an effect on this code. It can be avoided by altering keys and certificates to prevent disputes and distribution threats with several certificates.


Code signing certificates confirm the validity of your software and build a trusting relationship with your customers. But the biggest issue with these certificates is the protection of private keys mapped to them.

It takes only one security breach to ruin the reputation of your organization. Therefore, the private keys associated with the code signing certificate must be protected from all known threats.

The above-mentioned important security tips will help you secure your code signing certificate from malicious actors.

Samuel Jim
Samuel Jim
Samuel Jim Nnamdi is the CTO of Foxstate, a platform that powers digital infrastructures for Real estate financing globally. He has over 8 years of Software Engineering and CyberSecurity expertise.

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