SSL vs Code Signing Certificates — What Is the Difference?

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When talking about SSl vs code signing certificates, many people don’t realize that SSL certificates and code signing certificates are not the same thing. They’re a lot more similar than you may realize — or maybe you do realize that fact, and that’s why you’re confused — but they have completely divergent functionality. Let’s talk about both types of certificates and how each is used most effectively.

SSL vs Code Signing — What Are the Similarities?

Let’s start with the what SSL and code signing have in common, because that will inform the rest of the discussion. Both SSL certificates and code signing certificates are X.509 digital certificates. On a technical level, the only difference is the way their key usage is configured. We’ll touch on that more in a second.

Code signing and SSL are both facilitated by public key infrastructure, or what’s commonly referred to as PKI. This is a trust model that allows trusted entities, called certificate authorities (CAs) to issue trusted certificates that can verify identity and perform specific cryptographic functions. Regardless of what the function of the digital certificate is, when a client receives it, they verify its authenticity by following the digital signature on the certificate back to the certificate that made it, until it can chain it back to a trusted CA root. This is what’s known as a certificate chain.  

When considering SSL vs code signing certificates and how they differ, the difference lies in what function they serve.

Code Signing Certificates

Code signing certificates are configured to be able to create digital signatures — you know, to sign things. This is a cryptographic function where the software to be signed is hashed first, then encrypted with the signing key. When a client attempts to access the software, it will use the public key associated with the signing certificate to decrypt the signature and verify its authenticity.

Code signing is a critical component of software development nowadays and the private key (or signing key) is extremely valuable because anything it signs will be trusted by browsers, operating systems, Windows SmartScreen, etc.

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SSL Certificates

SSL certificates, on the other hand, can’t sign stuff. You can’t use the private key from your SSL certificate to sign a piece of software or an email — its key usage isn’t configured for that. Rather, SSL certificates are configured to facilitate SSL/TLS. And SSL, at its heart, is a method for passing a secure session key over an insecure channel.

An SSL certificate does this via the SSL/TLS handshake. After the certificate is verified by the client and the connection is negotiated, the SSL certificates’ keys are used to share the information that will create the session key. Session keys are the smaller, symmetric keys that are actually used during the connection.

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Only an SSL certificate can facilitate a secure, encrypted HTTPS connection. A code signing certificate can’t do that. And vice versa for SSL certificates — good luck signing software with an SSL certificate. It’s not going to happen.

So, yes, although SSL and code signing certificates are actually quite similar, the key usage configuration makes all the difference. Because they function a lot differently.

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