Company-Name Police Part II

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I was told by VeriSign that they had contacted Edelman about the specific examples and that the certificates had been revoked before his piece had even gone up.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.

/zimages/3/28571.gifClick 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?