Code Signing: Past, Present and Future

Adobe AIR Development

Hey BlackBerry® devs! Got another guest post for you today – this one from Mark, who’s got some useful info about code signing (what it is and why we do it). Enjoy! – Ed.

There are many great things about developing for the BlackBerry platform – including our commitment and support of open source technologies and multiple development languages (Native, HTML5 with BlackBerry® WebWorks™, Adobe® AIR®, Java®). One thing we’ve really invested in over the last year is to respond to developer feedback and requests, in order to enable you to build the way that’s best for you. One of the areas we’ve been focusing on especially is code signing.

What is Code Signing anyway, and why does BlackBerry code sign?

Code signing has been designed to provide security for consumers. They can feel confident that the application they are installing has not been modified after it was signed by the application developer. Code signing is also a means for applications to protect their data.

Code signing has many benefits for both developers and consumers. Developers can distribute an unsigned version of their application along with a debug token to a limited set of beta testers. The debug token helps to ensure that only those beta testers that a developer has issued a token to can run the application. I’ll walk through this process in more detail in a future blog post.

Debug tokens also allow for central key management, allowing for a single code signing key to be used by a team of developers testing an application. Debug tokens can be issued to each developer, allowing them to test builds on their BlackBerry® PlayBook™ tablet. The code signing key can be deployed to a secure build server, protecting it and ensuring that only official builds of the application are signed for public distribution.

BlackBerry® Tablet OS applications each have their own sandboxed private data area that only the application itself can access, which is protected in part by the code signing key. This can prevent a malicious application from impersonating another application. If a malicious application – signed with a different code signing key – were to attempt to masquerade as an upgrade to an existing application the user has installed, it would install it as a new, unique application and it would not have access to the private data area of the original application. This makes it important to back up your code signing key because if you lose it, you’ll be unable to provide upgrades to your application.

Data protection isn’t just limited to BlackBerry Tablet OS applications. BlackBerry® 7 OS (and lower) support similar data access control through the use of a custom code signing key. You can read all about that here.

What We’ve Been Doing over the Last Year

We’ve made a number of improvements to code signing over the last year and we will continue to build on this in 2012. Here is a rundown of what we’ve done so far:

  • Made code signing keys easier to obtain by removing the credit card requirement for ordering them
  • Reduced the order time for code signing keys from 7-10 days to approximately 1-2 hours so you can start building right away!
  • Created Configuration Wizards to walk you through configuring and backing up your keys
  • Automated many previously manual steps by integrating Debug Tokens into the SDKs
  • Updated the hardware for our code signing servers
  • Created the Code Signing Supportsite to walk through the ordering, configuration and signing process

This is by no means the end of the road when it comes to improvements. The golden age of code signing will arrive when you can request keys instantly from the SDKs themselves and have the tools take care of all the dirty work for you. We’re actively re-writing the code signing infrastructure to accommodate this in the future.

The Future Is Secure AND Easy

These are just some of the major benefits that code signing provides. Of course, in any situation, the benefits have to outweigh the effort. We hope to achieve a near zero effort for code signing for both developers and consumers.

Got questions about the code signing process? Let us know in the comments!

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