Pitfalls of verifying signed jar files

In the Java world, it’s possible to digitally sign a jar file using ‘keytool’ to generate or import a digital signature, and ‘jarsigner’ to do the signing. What isn’t so obvious is that when we use ‘jarsigner’ to verify a signed jar, it doesn’t verify that we trust the signature that signed the file. It simply tells us whether the contents were signed by a public key that was included with the jar file.

Surprisingly, there’s no option to tell jarsigner to check for trusted signatures.

In code, we can use java.util.jar.JarFile to check the validity of a jar file. By default, the constructor to JarFile says we want to check the validity. Code must then iterate through each entry in the JarFile and seek to the end of each input stream, otherwise, the integrity isn’t checked. In other words, the java.util.jar.JarFile doesn’t give us the integrity checking with a simple method call such as isValid(), and it doesn’t give us an easy way to check that we trust the signature that the entries were signed with.

Anyone, anywhere, can create their own certificate, and sign a jar file — so if we want to establish trust for a signed jar, we get to do extra work. On stackoverflow.com, Jarek Przygódzki linked to code that shows how to check for trusted signatures.

I wonder why establishing trust for a signed jar isn’t easier. Could it be that signed jar files originated in the bygone era when we ran Java applets in our web browsers? Did web browsers use their certificate authority database to verify some level of trust for the signature contained in a jar file?

Verifying trust is a delicate issue, as demonstrated by the recently hacked certificate authorities including Diginotar and Comodo. Perhaps it’s a good thing that Java’s libraries and command line tools don’t make it deceptively simple to check jar files based on certificates trusted by Certificate Authorities.

Still, I wish the documentation for jarsigner and JarFile would shed more light on the limits of their default verification. I’d call it “hash checking” or “integrity checking based on hashing”.


Easy updates with iOS and Linux vs bomardment from Windows

When I want to check email on my iPod Touch, I simply unlock it, load the email application, and read messages. What a joy. The tool works and works for me. It is my servant, instead of me being its servant.

Compare that to my corporate Windows Laptop. I open the lid and unlock it, wait for corporate anti-virus (I think) to chew through the I/O on my machine for several minutes. Then I can read my email using the unimpressive and slow Lotus Notes (I’d rather be using Thunderbird, Outlook, or speedy mutt).

Or compare to my home Windows Laptop. I open the lid, log in, and am bombarded with requests from several programs to install updates. I just want to check my email, not be attacked with annoying “update me!” windows. I see one from Thunderbird, another from Adobe Flash, another from Mozy and another from Firefox. By the time I’ve upgraded, sometimes I’ve forgotten what I wanted to accomplish in the first place.

Apple has it right with updates for the iPod Touch: They stay out of my way until I want to bother with them, and then they’re all manged together.

Linux has it right: A single package manager updates everything, in one shot, including from third parties.

I’ll continue to use Windows. There are other benefits, even though third-party updates are annoying.