Monthly Archives: February 2008

The great digital certificate ripoff?

digital certificateRipoff: A ripoff (or rip-off) is a bad deal. Usually it refers to an incident in which a person pays too much for something. A ripoff is distinguished from a scam in that a scam involves wrongdoing such as fraud. From Wikipedia.

Digitally signing your software allows you to show that you are the author of the software and that the application hasn’t been tampered with. If your software isn’t signed, Windows displays scary looking warnings when customers download it. So it makes a lot of sense to digitally sign your software if you are distributing it on Windows. So far so good.

Anyone can create their own digital signature, but Windows only ‘trusts’ signatures that have been created by certain third parties. While there are quite a few Microsoft root certificate program members, I am only aware of 3 that sell code signing (‘authenticode’) certificates. This is where it starts to get ugly. Here are their published prices per year:

Verisign: $499.00

Thawte: $299.00

Comodo: $119.95

That seems an awful lot considering that all they appear to do is check a document (e.g. a scan of your certificate of incorporation), check your whois record, multiply a couple of large prime numbers and then send you a certificate file. Much of this process is (or should be) automated. No wonder the founder of Thawte could afford to be one of the first space tourists.

Given that authenticode certificates from these three companies are functionally identical[1], as far as I can tell, why the price difference? It seems even more bizarre when you consider that Verisign now own Thawte. If you had the misfortune to sign up for the Microsoft ‘works with Vista’ program you could get a 1-year Verisign code signing certificate for $99. I doubt they were doing this at a loss, so how can they justify selling the exact same certificate for $499? I would guess that at least 99% of customers will never check who issued a certificate, so it can hardly be due to the power of the brand.

So why doesn’t someone just set up their own certificating authority, get approved by Microsoft, and undercut these 3 companies? Because their root certificate wouldn’t be installed on all the millions of PCs currently out there. It would be worthless until the vast majority of PCs had the new root certificate. What a fantastic lock-in!

The good news is that you can buy Comodo certificates for much more reasonable prices from these resellers:

Tucows: $75 [2]

KSoftware: $85 ($75 for ASP members)

Which rather begs the question – if resellers can make a profit at $75, why are Comodo charging $119? Because they can, I suppose. I emailed Verisign, Thawte and Comodo to ask about the disparities in price. I only received a reply from Comodo:

This [difference between their price and the reseller price] is simply due to Retail Vs Wholesale solutions we offer. Our Resellers commit to a specific program which enables discounted prices allowing them to make margins on the product as they see fit. Whether that be reduced prices, or make a cash profit from the sale.

All 3 companies have had major price hikes in the last few years. With so little competition, why wouldn’t they? So what is Microsoft’s role is in all of this? One would have thought that they would want to keep certificate prices low to encourage their wider adoption. I emailed Microsoft’s PR people to ask about pricing and whether they had any financial interest in Verisign. Here is the response:

1) Why does Microsoft “insist” on VeriSign certificates?

Microsoft Windows Quality Labs only recognizes files that are signed with a Verisign Class 3 Certificate of Authority (COA). Windows Quality Labs is evaluating recognizing other COA’s. There is a USD $399 offer for Class 3 COAs for those partners (IHVs, OEMS, ISVs) – who plan to submit solutions for Microsoft certification. More details are available at

2) Does Microsoft have any comment to make on the disparity in price?

VeriSign also offers a USD $99 Organizational ID certificate. This provides authentication for organizations to Microsoft Windows Quality Labs, providing access to various services, such as creating submission IDs for products to undergo Microsoft testing. This certificate is not valid for signing drivers or executable files.

Information pertaining to Microsoft Investments can be located at the MSFT Investor Relations site, under Investments/Acquisitions:

Steve Bell, Senior Product Manager – Server Certification Programs, Windows Server

After a bit of surfing I found this page which says that Microsoft invested in Verisign in 1996. I don’t know how much they invested, but it certainly puts things in a rather different light. So Windows authenticode certificates are effectively controlled by just 2 companies, at least one of whom is part-owned by Microsoft[3]. Companies are in business to make profits, but it seems to me that these companies are using their effective monopoly to take advantage of the situation. I only see the situation getting worse as Windows displays ever more scary warnings for unsigned software. Perhaps this is something government regulators should be investigating. Let’s hope that Verisign don’t buy Comodo as well.

[1] Only Verisign certificates are recognised for some of the Microsoft certification programs, for example x64 Vista driver signing.

[2] You need to register with Tucows to login.

[3] Assuming they haven’t sold their Verisign stock. I am not aware that Microsoft owns any Comodo stock. I haven’t been able to find any further details by Googling.

Credit card fraud

mount seftonFraud can be a very big problem for online software vendors. Fraudsters can easily use throwaway email addresses that can’t be traced back to them (e.g. Hotmail) and IP addresses aren’t difficult to hide. Not only does the vendor lose the payment when the fraud is reported, they also often get hit with a chargeback fee. This is pretty outrageous when you think about it – the credit card companies are charging vendors for the fraudulent transactions that they themselves have failed to detect.

Thankfully I have had relatively few fraudulent transactions in the last 3 years of running my own business. However some more mainstream B2C businesses aren’t as lucky. Below are the experiences of one software vendor I have corresponded with [1]. It makes for scary reading. The vendor wishes to remain anonymous for understandable reasons.

I tracked one of our recent chargeback emails to a forum were they had been openly selling stolen credit card information for $2 each. If you do have a popular product that may be prone to chargebacks then it is a small nightmare unless you have a fraud system in place as there are 1000s of credit card info out there with full contact details. There is not a day goes by that we don’t get at least 3 stolen credit card purchase attempts.

We use WorldPay and they have a quick check on cv2 code and if the country, postal address and postcode match. But almost all of these purchases pass the simple fraud checks. You cannot even rely on IP checking as the fraudsters are pretty smart and use proxies, or even hijack PCs to make purchases from the same country the credit card is issued. PayPal is not quite as serious, but we do still receive quite a few hijacked account purchases also.

WorldPay fraud checking is next to useless. Even the ones they warn on are usually legitimate. They have recently released a new backend, but they have made the problem worse as they seem to warn if the IP address isn’t from the same country. The problem with that is we get a lot of sales that don’t match, from military based in different countries. Our whitelist used to let them go through automatically, but now we have to manually capture the payment.

The number of fraudulent purchases changes depending if you make a new release etc or if your software is hard to find an easy crack. It can be from 1% to 15% depending, as you may have a single user trying to hit you on certain days.

We were forced to make our own fraud checking system. At least we had all the information at hand as we make users sign up to our site before making a purchase and we log all activity from a user, but to get that information we had to lose many thousands of pounds in fees. Since implementing our own fraud check (as fraudsters do tend to use amazingly similar criteria each time) we have reduced it to on average 1-2 a week, which are almost impossible to catch.

I think the level of fraud has to do with the type of users we sell software to. They are the sort of people that know exactly where to find cracks/keygens. Our software does have pretty good protection and online activation, so it is not so easy to get an easy “working” crack/keygen for it. We also have large volume sales over the past few years, so we have more information than most developers would see.

The credit card companies can’t really lose, especially with “no card holder signature” sales. Chargebacks cost on average 15 Euros. I have even contacted the likes of PayPal telling them that sales are fraudulent, and quite a lot of times they do not care.

We get to see all our sales, I would hate to think what is happening at these merchant services like Regsoft etc. How many sales are being refused that may be legitimate? I tried paying a programmer once who accepted payments using Regnow from my PayPal account and they refused it. My account was verified and had been in good standing for many years. It wouldn’t have been so bad but the person I was paying did not have a clue it was refused.

So, if you have a successful consumer product that fraudsters might be interested in, be prepared to expend a significant amount of money and effort dealing with online fraud. And don’t expect the payment processors and credit card companies to give you much help. I guess the credit card companies don’t have much incentive to reduce fraud. As long as they can keep pushing the cost of fraud onto the vendors and the fraudsters don’t bring the whole system down, the credit card companies seem quite happy. Why wouldn’t they be?

[1] I have spliced together the contents of several emails and edited it for continuity and brevity.

Windows Vista service pack 1

vista.gifMicrosoft have announced that service pack 1 for Windows Vista has been released to manufacturing. Microsoft claim “great progress in performance, reliability and compatibility”. SP1 will be rolled out through Windows update from mid-March.

My own stats show that Vista has been slowly increasing market share at 1% per month. At this rate it will take it another 5 years to reach the 75% share currently held by XP. But perhaps a lot of people have been wisely waiting for SP1 before committing?

I have been using Vista on my main development machine for the last few months. It is OK once you turn the deeply annoying UAC off. But it is still hard to see any compelling reason to upgrade from XP.

Your harddrive *will* fail – it’s just a question of when

failed harddisksThere are a few certainties in life: death, taxes and harddisk failure. I have no less than 6 failed harddisks sitting here on my desk patiently awaiting their appointment with Mr Lump Hammer. 2 Seagates, 3 Maxtors and 1 Western Digital. This equates to roughly one disk failure per year. Perhaps this is not suprising given that I have about 9 working harddisks at the moment spread across various machines. Given the incredible tolerances to which harddisks are manfactured, perhaps it is a miracle harddisks work at all.

As an analogy, a magnetic head slider flying over a disk surface with a flying height of 25 nm with a relative speed of 20 meters/second is equivalent to an aircraft flying at a physical spacing of 0.2 ┬Ám at 900 kilometers/hour. This is what a disk drive experiences during its operation. –Magnetic Storage Systems Beyond 2000, George C. Hadjipanayis from Wikipedia

We all know we need to back-up our data. But it is a chore that often gets forgotten at the most critical periods. Here are my hints for preparing yourself for that inevitable ‘click of death’.

  • Buy an external USB/Firewire harddrive. 500GB drives are ridiculously cheap these days. Personally I don’t like back-up tapes due to experiences of them stretching and corrupting data.
  • Back-up images of the entire OS, not just the data. You can use Acronis TrueImage on Windows and SuperDuper on MacOSX. This can save you days restoring your entire development environment and applications from scratch.
  • Back-up individual files as well as entire OS images. You don’t want to have to restore a whole image to retrieve one critical file. Windows Vista and Mac OS X Leopard both have back-up applications built into the OS.
  • Use a separate machine to your development machine as source code server.
  • Use a RAID-1 (mirrored) disk on your main development machine[1]. It is worth noting that this actually doubles the likelihood of harddisk failure, but makes the likelihood of a catastrophic failure much lower. Keep an identical 3rd drive on hand to swap in when a drive fails.
  • Back-ups aren’t much use if they get incinerated along with your office in a fire, so store copies off-site. For example you can:
  • Make sure any off-site copies are securely encypted, for example using Axcrypt.
  • Automate your back-ups as far as possible. Computers are much better at the dull repetitive stuff.
  • Test restoring data once in a while. There is not much point backing up data only to find you can’t restore it when needed.

There are lots of applications for backing up individual files. So many in fact, that no-one has any hope of evaluating them all (marketing tip: don’t write another back-up application – really). I also worry that data stored in their various proprietary formats might not be accessible in future due to the vendor going out of business. I find the venerable DOS xcopy adequate for my needs. I run it in a scheduled Windows batch file to automatically synch file changes on to my usb harddrive (i:) every night. Here it is in all its glory:

XCOPY c:\data i:\data /d /i /s /v /f /y /g /EXCLUDE:exclude.txt

The exclude.txt file is used to exclude subversion folders and intermediate compiler files:


Which of the above do I do? Pretty much all of them actually. At least I try, I haven’t yet automated the offsite backup. This may seem rather excessive, but it paid dividends last month when gremlins went on the rampage here in the Oryx Digital office. I had 2 harddrive failures in 2 weeks. The power supply+harddisk+network card on my old XP development machine failed then, while I was in the process of moving everything to my new Vista development machine, one of the RAID-1 disks on the new machine failed.

Things didn’t go quite according to plan though. The new RAID-1 box wouldn’t boot from either harddisk. I have no idea why.

raid1Also the last couple of weekly Acronis image back-ups had failed and I hadn’t done anything about it. I had recent back-ups of all the important data, but I faced a day or more reinstalling all the apps I had installed since the last successful image. It took several hours on the phone to Dell technical support and much crawling around on the floor before I could I get the new RAID-1 box to boot off one harddisk. I was then able to rebuild RAID-1 using the spare harddisk I had on standby for such an eventuality. Nothing was lost, apart from my sense of humour.

Dell offered to replace the defective harddisk under warranty, but I declined on the grounds that there is far too much valuable information on this disk (source code, digital certificate keys, customer details etc) for me to entrust it to any third party. Especially given that Dell reserve the right to refurbish the harddisk and send it to someone else. What if they forgot to wipe it? My experiences with courier companies also haven’t given me great confidence that the disk would reach Dell. And I didn’t want to receive a reburbished disk as a replacement. It just isn’t worth relying on a refurb given how cheap new harddisks are. So the harddisk has joined the back of the growing queue to see Mr Lump Hammer.

The availability of cheap harddisks and cheap bandwidth means that it has never been easier to backup your systems. No more fiddling with mag tapes. Of course it is possible that your harddisk will work perfectly until it becomes obselete, but I think it would be very unwise to assume that this will be the case. Don’t say I didn’t warn you…

Further reading:

What’s your backup strategy? (the prolific and always worth reading Jeff Atwood beats me to the punch)

[1] RAID-1 is built in to some Intel motherboards and is available as a relatively inexpensive extra from Dell. You may have to ask for it though – it wasn’t listed as a standard configuration option when I purchased my Dell Dimension 9200.

[2] Since I wrote this article I installed the latest version of JungleDisk on my Vista box. On the 3 occasions I have tried to use it it hung Vista to the point where I had to I had to cut the power in order to reboot. I have now uninstalled it.