Tag Archives: tucows

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 http://www.verisign.com/code-signing/msft-organizational-certificates/.

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: http://www.microsoft.com/msft/default.mspx.

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.