Company-Name Police Part II

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2005-03-03 Print this article Print

Opinion: I'm correcting the record on Ben Edelman and VeriSign, but my basic opinion on code signing and certificate authorities has not changed.

The first thing I need to do here is to correct some misstatements from a recent column titled, Should VeriSign Be the Name Police? For that piece, I spoke with VeriSign about a column by Spyware researcher Ben Edelman that enumerates examples of VeriSign certificate abuse. I was told by VeriSign that they had contacted Edelman about the specific examples and that the certificates had been revoked before his piece had even gone up. Edelman quickly disagreed with this account, and I checked back with Chad Kinzelberg, vice president at VeriSign, who now confirms that he was mistaken in saying this, and he apologized. I should apologize, too, for not checking back with Edelman first, but Ill set the record straight here.

Click here to find out why code signing makes even more sense for open-source software than for proprietary apps.
In follow-up discussions with both Edelman and VeriSign, we got to the heart of the matter, which is the basic utility of code signing. To recount, VeriSign sells digital certificates for a variety of purposes, and in fact dominates this market. The vast majority of this market involves certificates sold for secure Web sites, which are unrelated to the issues Edelman brought up. But certificates are also sold to sign executable programs.

The point of signing programs is that a user can check the signature on the file, confirm that it was signed by the entity they expected as the source of the program, and also confirm the validity of the signature itself by seeing the CA (certificate authority) that issued the signature. Certificates cost several hundred dollars typically, and part of what you get for that money is that the CA scrutinizes the name used by the applicant to ensure that it is theirs to use and doesnt otherwise violate policies. Click here to see VeriSigns policies for such certificates.

I think that in the world of the Internet, such a trust system is essential, but in fact its still in its infancy. With rare exceptions, the only time users check a code signature is when Windows XP SP2 (Service Pack 2) forces them to. Microsoft has been a driving force in the industry for code signatures, but they drive like my grandmother. After hearing about signatures for about eight years now, its only with Windows XP SP2 that they really force the user to deal with them in most important circumstances, such as when you download and run an executable from the Internet. Microsoft shows the certificate information, but not the CA information. Of course, the company has supported code signing of ActiveX controls since their inception. Edelman cites several examples of ActiveX controls that exhibit the problems about which he writes.

Next page: What should VeriSign do?

Larry Seltzer has been writing software for and English about computers ever since—,much to his own amazement—,he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

He was one of the authors of NPL and NPL-R, fourth-generation languages for microcomputers by the now-defunct DeskTop Software Corporation. (Larry is sad to find absolutely no hits on any of these +products on Google.) His work at Desktop Software included programming the UCSD p-System, a virtual machine-based operating system with portable binaries that pre-dated Java by more than 10 years.

For several years, he wrote corporate software for Mathematica Policy Research (they're still in business!) and Chase Econometrics (not so lucky) before being forcibly thrown into the consulting market. He bummed around the Philadelphia consulting and contract-programming scenes for a year or two before taking a job at NSTL (National Software Testing Labs) developing product tests and managing contract testing for the computer industry, governments and publication.

In 1991 Larry moved to Massachusetts to become Technical Director of PC Week Labs (now eWeek Labs). He moved within Ziff Davis to New York in 1994 to run testing at Windows Sources. In 1995, he became Technical Director for Internet product testing at PC Magazine and stayed there till 1998.

Since then, he has been writing for numerous other publications, including Fortune Small Business, Windows 2000 Magazine (now Windows and .NET Magazine), ZDNet and Sam Whitmore's Media Survey.

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