What Is an Azure Key Vault Code Signing Certificate?

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56% of cyber incidents investigated by Palo Alto involved malware in some way. Learn what the Azure Key Vault code signing certificate is and how it can help prevent your software from being used for malicious purposes

The importance of digital trust grows by the day as distinguishing between legitimate and fraudulent applications is increasingly challenging for software users. Data from IBM’s 2024 X Force Threat Intelligence report shows that malware distribution through fake ads and software downloads increased in 2023.

An Azure Key Vault code signing certificate can play a key role (excuse the pun) in protecting your brand and customer relationships by preventing your legitimate software from being used for these purposes. Signing your software validates your digital identity as a developer or publisher and aids in increasing customers’ trust in your brand.

But what is an Azure Key Vault code signing certificate? Why is it such a valuable resource for Windows developers and software publishers in earning users’ trust? Here are our simple, no-nonsense answers to these questions.  

Azure Key Vault Code Signing Certificate: What Is It?

The Azure Key Vault code signing certificate is an X.509 digital file that contains validated information about you and your organization’s digital identity. This certificate’s key private key is stored in Azure Key Vault to protect it from compromise.

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Azure offers a few certificate and key storage options. However, the key vault that’s secured using a Microsoft hardware security module (HSM) — a secure device that’s used to store digital keys and other secrets for both at-rest secrets and use during cryptographic operations — is the best alternative for storing and managing code signing certificates in Azure.

An overview of three Azure Key Vault storage options
Image caption: A screenshot of Azure Key Vault’s key storage options. The screenshot was captured on Microsoft.com.

Why is the HSM a more secure option than the software-protected one? Because it’s FIPS 140-2 Level 2 compliant. This cryptographic hardware security best practice has been adopted worldwide and is tied into the CA/B Forum’s latest Code Signing Certificate Baseline Requirements.

Signing your software with an Azure Key Vault code signing certificate leverages the enhanced security protection offered by Microsoft Azure Key Vault. This type of code signing certificate enables you to:

  • Prove your digital identity to customers and their Windows operating systems and browsers, and
  • Guarantee the integrity of your Windows software to prove it hasn’t been tampered with since it was signed.

Think of it like a digital version of a notarized document that you keep in a safe. The digital signature comes from the publicly trusted certificate authority (i.e., the notary public) after they’ve reviewed your identifying documentation. They then put a stamp on the file or document, which confirms the following:

  • They’ve issued the certificate to you (not an imposter), and
  • Anything you sign using the certificate is authentic.

Types of Azure Vault Code Signing Certificates

An Azure Key Vault code signing certificate is one type of public key infrastructure (PKI) certificate. (Other common examples of PKI digital certificates include SSL/TLS certificates, document signing certificates, S/MIME email signing certificates, etc.)

Code signing certificates come in two flavors:

  • Standard Code Signing Certificate. Issued only after the CA has validated your identity as a developer/organization. It reduces the number of security warnings and replaces the Unknown Publisher alert with your verified organization details. No more shady, anonymous software. 
An example of verified company information that displays when you digitally sign your software using a publicly trusted code signing certificate
Image caption: This is the pop-up replacing the Unknown Publisher alert when a code is signed with an Azure Key Vault code signing certificate. The name of the publisher is displayed front and center.

Using a Code Signing Certificate Protects & Authenticates Your Software

With the number of malware attacks reaching 6.06 billion in 2023, customers should strive to download software and executables from reputable sources only. This is where the Azure Key Vault code signing certificate comes in.

The certificate uses public key cryptography to bind your identity to your certificate and its cryptographic key pair. With a traditional code signing certificate, your private key would be generated on a secure USB device. Your certificate would also be installed onto the device.

In Azure Key Vault, the keys and the certificate are generated and stored in your selected vault to keep them safe from theft and compromise. Your authorized employees are able to use the keys for cryptographic operations without needing direct access to them.

Image caption: The graphic shows an overview of using a code signing certificate and key that are stored in the Azure Key Vault.

How Code Signing Works Using Azure Key Vault

In a nutshell, when you use the certificate and keys saved on your Azure Key Vault to sign your code, you:

  • Generate the hash digest (i.e., hash value). The software is hashed using a secure hashing algorithm.
  • Encrypt and sign the hash file. You use the private key to encrypt, sign, and timestamp the digest.
  • Authenticate your code. Last but not least, you attach the signature bundle to the software. Now, your app has a unique seal of authenticity. 
An basic illustration that showcases how Azure Key Vault code signing works
Image caption: This is how the code signing certificate process works from a developer’s perspective. The developer uses their Azure Key Vault-stored keys to digitally sign the software using cryptographic hashing and encryption functions.

Asserts Your Digital Identity & Protects Against Unauthorized Modifications

From now on, every time a user downloads or attempts to install your software, his client will:

  • Confirm the identity of the signer. Using a public key to decrypt the signature, the client verifies the timestamp to confirm the certificate’s validity. The publisher’s name is also displayed.
  • Verify the integrity of the software. The user’s client creates a new digest and compares it with the file hash bundled in the signature block. If they match, the download/installation has the green light to proceed. If they don’t, the user is alerted. 
An illustraiton that shows how users' Windows operation systems and Microsoft browser clients verify digitally signed software
Image caption: Signing your Windows apps with an Azure Key Vault OV code signing certificate will prove to your customers’ Windows operating systems and Microsoft browser clients that your app is safe and really made by you.

See? Signing your code with an Azure Key Vault code signing certificate gives you peace of mind that the software is protected against cybercriminals’ alterations. At the same time, consumers can download your apps without worrying about being infected with nasty malware.

Is that all? Are these the only advantages of investing some of your hard-earned money in an Azure Key Vault code signing certificate? No way, Jose’. Code signing has more in the bag for you. Let’s explore its seven most significant benefits.

Prove Your Software Is Trustworthy

Signing your code shows users that your software and updates can be trusted.

A 3D screenshot of the Code Signing Best Practices Guide from CodeSigningStore.com

Download our free code signing best practices eBook to learn how to help keep your supply chain secure and your company, customers & end-users safe.

8 Reasons Why You Need an Azure Key Vault Code Signing Certificate

In 2023, the frequency of ransomware attacks escalated dramatically and affected 1 out of 10 organizations globally. In its report, CheckPoint revealed an astounding 90% increase in publicly extorted ransomware victims compared to the previous year. And guess what? 10% of the malware identified by the cybersecurity provider was directly related to those ransomware attacks. 

OK. We know that signing Microsoft code with an Azure Key Vault code signing certificate will reduce the risk of code tampering and malware infection to a minimum. This is also true of publicly trusted code signing certificates that are stored on secure USB devices or using another secure cloud storage HSM like GoGetSSL Cloud Code Signing.

But what does code signing help you achieve regarding uses and benefits?

  1. Offers burden-free certificate management, swift revocation, and renewals. Using an Azure Key Vault code signing certificate removes the burden (and costs) of managing an on-prem HSM.  It integrates seamlessly existing with your existing DigiCert CertCentral account, making it easy to automate your certificate lifecycle management tasks to improve operational efficiency, scalability, and security.
  2. Helps you comply with the latest industry requirements. The certificates and keys fulfill the latest industry security standards such as encrypted digital signatures, SHA-2 hash algorithms, and timestamping. In addition, the Azure Key Vault HSM is a secure FIPS 140-2 Level 2, which has been an industry baseline requirement since June 2023.
  3. Streamlines code signing activities without sacrificing security. Wondering whether you can use your Azure Key Vault code signing certificate in your secure development process life cycle? Yes, you can. The signing process can be easily embedded in the CI/CD pipeline. It can even be used directly in Visual Studio without disruptions or delays — all without users requiring direct access to your keys.
  4. Boosts revenue, downloads, and strengthens customer trust. Code signing will add a hallmark of authenticity and integrity to your apps/software at once. Why is it worth it? A recent McKinsey survey confirmed that 87% of consumers consider trust and data protection among their top factors for purchase decisions. 
  5. Enables you to publish apps and software in all top marketplace stores. Are you planning to distribute your creations through partners and third-party platforms? Then you can’t do without a code signing certificate, as many have a mandatory code signing policy (e.g., Microsoft marketplace).  
  6. Certifies that your software came from you, a trusted publisher. In contrast with self-signed certificates, Azure Key Vault code signing using a publicly trusted certificate provides tangible proof that your code came from you. Allow your customers to check your CA-verified publisher identity and certificate at the click of a button.  
  7. Protects your code from tampering. Palo Alto research shows that in 2023, more than 38% of the attacks the research team analyzed started with the exploitation of a software vulnerability. With code signing, any unauthorized software modification (e.g., malware injection) will be immediately identified. At the time of download, the user’s client will automatically alert the user. 
  8. Guarantees smooth application installation. Would you download software flagged as insecure and made by an unknown publisher? Please tell me you wouldn’t. Don’t let your users be scared away by pesky warnings or frustrating experiences. According to Thales, 22% of customers running into an unpleasant experience give up within just 60 seconds. Reduce these concerns to the minimum by offering worry-free, easy installation.

Where Can You Get an Azure Key Vault Code Signing Certificate

So, want to enjoy all these Azure Key Vault code signing certificate benefits? The first thing you’ll have to do is to choose a CA. Beware, though — not all CAs are the same. For instance, DigiCert offers code signing certificates that can be stored and used in Azure Key Vault without issues. Most other CAs don’t support Azure Key Vault as an HSM.

Save Up to 27% on a Standard Code Signing Certificate

Assert your organization’s verified digital identity to increase trust in your software and updates. Boost your sales and download rates for as little as $195.00/year (with a 3-year certificate).

Buy Now

Therefore, to help you with your choice, we’ve summarized everything you need to know before purchasing your new code signing certificate.

Got your Azure Key Vault code signing certificate? Great! It’s time to take action. Check out our definitive guide. Learn step-by-step, how to set up an Azure Key Vault and sign Windows packages with a code signing certificate.

Final Thoughts Azure Key Vault Code Signing Certificates

An Azure Key Vault code signing certificate will enable you to provide your customers with transparent and secure software and apps that they can trust. It’ll protect your Windows apps and other code from tampering and certify that your software is authentic and really made by you.

Furthermore, you can use it to sign a plethora of file formats, manifests, and apps, including:

Get your Azure Key Vault code signing certificate today. Start asserting your digital identity and delivering secure code now. Because when sensitive information is on the line, every second counts.