Win8 SmartScreen nudges software sellers to buy code signing certs

Microsoft is not forcing publishers to buy Extended Validation code signing certificates, but life could be easier with them.

Microsoft’s SmartScreen ‘reputation checker’ is expanding from the Internet Explorer browser to the entire Windows 8 desktop, nudging developers to buy Extended Validation (EV) code signing certificates to reduce their chances of causing a security alert.

“We recognise that Internet Explorer (IE) isn’t the only way users download applications from the Internet, so Windows 8 now uses SmartScreen to perform an application reputation check the first time users launch applications that were downloaded from the Internet,” Jeb Haber, Microsoft’s lead program manager for SmartScreen explained yesterday in a blog post.

The integration of SmartScreen across the Windows 8 desktop forms part of Microsoft’s strategy to reduce malware threats to the Windows ecosystem and comes as the Redmond company launches Windows Store, its distribution platform for Windows 8 applications.

Software distributed through it will already be vetted by Microsoft so will not face the Windows SmartScreen Application Reputation’s “checks or warnings”, however all software downloaded from the web will, leaving developers with the choice to buy a certificate, wait for their reputation to build or distribute through the Windows Store.

Developers can reduce the chances of their software triggering security alerts by buying EV code signing certificates, currently from certificate authorities Symantec or DigiCert.

Symantec currently charges US$995 for a one year EV code signing certificate, US$1,790 for two years and $2,585 for three years. DigiCert sells its three year EV code signing certificate for US$331.67 for three years, but the hardware token included bumps that up to US$995.

Aware the move could draw criticism, Microsoft points out these certificates are “not required” to build a reputation with its scanner, but will be advantageous in getting the all clear from SmartScreen.

“Detractors may claim that SmartScreen is “forcing” developers to spend money on certificates. It should be stressed that EV code signing certificates are not required to build or maintain reputation with SmartScreen,” Haber said.

“Files signed with standard code signing certificates and even unsigned files continue to build reputation as they have since Application Reputation was introduced in IE9 last year. However, the presence of an EV code signing certificate is a strong indicator that the file was signed by an entity that has passed a rigorous validation process and was signed with hardware which allows our systems to establish reputation for that entity more quickly than unsigned or non-EV code signed programs.”

Promoting the advantages, Microsoft also points out that the certificate allows the publisher to build up a reputation rather than each software package being required to.

“Code signing is important to our reputation intelligence because this higher level identity allows us to build reputation across multiple programs signed by a publisher. It is also important for publishers because signed programs inherit the reputation of the certificate with which they are signed; this means every program a publisher distributes doesn’t need to build reputation individually."

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