22
Dec
10

The Harsh Reality Of Security

Chris Skinner has a blog entry that asks the question, “Why does the card securities council not care about card security?”  What concerns me is the title of the article as it again implies that the PCI standards do nothing to secure cardholder data.  As a result, I thought I would take a shot at answering this question.

Mr. Skinner points to a number of technologies that he feels the PCI SSC is ignoring as potential solutions to securing cardholder data.  These solutions include tokenization, end-to-end encryption (E2EE) and Chip & PIN (EMV).  I recently posted a blog entry on all of these technologies, so I will not go into all of these here.  The bottom line on all of these is that, individually, they do not solve the security problems we face.  However, used in conjunction, they will create a much more formidable barrier to breaches.  I can tell you that the Council is not ignoring these technologies; they are only doing proper research to ensure that whatever guidance they issue is not flawed resulting in a recall or wholesale rewriting of a standard.  Want to lose credibility?  Issue a standard that you have to later heavily modify or replace.  Do I have to remind everyone about Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP)?

Then we have the dynamics of the card brands.  Just because Visa writes a whitepaper on some technology does not mean that the other four card brands have bought into Visa’s analysis.  Visa may be the 800 pound gorilla of the card brands, but as anyone in business knows, the 800 pound gorilla does not always get its way regardless of how boisterous or how much chest pounding it may do.  A prime example of this was in the late 1970s when IBM (then the 800 pound technology gorilla) tried to force System Network Architecture (SNA) down the International Organization for Standardization’s throat as the Open Systems Interconnect (OSI) model.  What happened was that the rest of the technology companies in the world banded together and created the OSI seven-layer model that we have today.  While it has a lot in common with SNA, it also has numerous differences.  The bottom line is that there are certain dynamics between the card brands that will preclude the Council from always following Visa’s lead, regardless of whether Visa’s analysis is right.

How about the cost of any change?  Merchants do not live on thick margins.  Most are lucky to retain 1% to 4% of total sales as their profit margin.  If you are Wal-Mart or Target, margins can be huge numerically, but still not enough to fund the kind of wholesale changes Mr. Skinner is suggesting.  Unfortunately, most merchants are nowhere near the size of Wal-Mart, so they need to be even more judicial with their expenditures.  As a result, any change that requires a significant investment is going to be tough for any merchant to swallow and will take time to get rolled out.  After all, we are in the midst of a recession, so there is even higher sensitivity to expenditures that do not enhance the bottom line.

But for a number of merchants, the cost is not so much theirs to bear as much as it is their merchant bank’s cost.  That is because a lot of merchant banks provide the entire cardholder processing environment to their merchants.  As a result, the bank will have to absorb the cost and possibly increase fees should new terminals or software be necessary.  Banks are not necessarily doing well either, so they too are avoiding any expenditures that are not going to positively influence the bottom line.  Since security is an intangible, banks are going to be very reluctant to spend on cardholder infrastructure that does not drive up revenue.  After all, in the United States and United Kingdom, the banks were bailed out by the government and are now being watched very closely by the various regulators and the regulators are holding the purse strings.  Unless the regulators come on board, there will be no expenditure on what they will consider a frivolous expense on new terminals or software.

All of these parties are intimately involved in the PCI Security Standards Council as stakeholders.  All of the card brands and a number of larger financial institutions are on the Council’s board and various work groups.  Given the economic environment and the predisposition of these parties, is it any wonder why the Council appears to not be moving forward?

Not to mention that the changes Mr. Skinner is suggesting do not eliminate the problem of security breaches, they just shift the risks.  Granted the risks get reduced, but by how much is anyone’s guess.  But in the end, there are still going to be risks.  As I always like to remind people, security is not perfect.  Yet that seems to be what the card brands and Council seem to want people to believe.  That if everyone followed the PCI standards, breaches would not occur and that is simply not true.  Breaches would still occur, they just would not necessarily occur every week releasing thousands or millions of accounts.  It would be more like a release every month of tens or hundreds of accounts.

I too would like to live in a perfect world.  But the real world is always far from perfect.  Decisions get made only when the wheel is so squeaky that it needs to be replaced.  We can rant and rave all we want, but we will only get action when we can either show (i) a measurable business benefit, such as an increase in profit or improved efficiency, or (ii) someone else is doing it and they now have a competitive advantage.  Unfortunately, I see neither of these conditions satisfied at this time nor any time in the near future.  As long as the status quo remains, no one is going to move.

In the end, the PCI SSC does care about security.  It is the politics that slow things down and those politics are not going to go away any time soon.  That is the harsh reality of business and security.

UPDATE: Forrester Research has published a great white paper titled ‘How To Market Security To Gain Influence And Secure Budget’ that explains how to avoid the common mistakes that most security people commit and, as a result, why security professionals do not get the resources that they need to get the job done.

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3 Responses to “The Harsh Reality Of Security”


  1. January 7, 2011 at 11:58 AM

    Here we go again:

    PCI does not care about security, it only cares about the perception of security. If it cared about security it would advocating the adoption of a system in which the so-called “sensitive data” had no intrinsic value. Instead it cares more about the perception of security and would have us believe that spending countless millions of dollars, pounds, milk bottle tops to encrypt everything will somehow make the PAN intrinsically value-less.

    Do we really care about card data security breaches – no we absolutely do not, providing the data that can be grabbed is of no value. The PCI Standards Council need to re-analyse the global card industry and put horse back in front of the cart before we all spend ourselves into oblivion.

    The PCI Guru recognises that merchants do not have a great deal of spare cash, and I quote: “As a result, any change that requires a significant investment is going to be tough for any merchant to swallow and will take time to get rolled out”. I completely agree, so why force them to spend, spend, spend and keep on spending their hard earned cash on security consultants and the revolving cost of PCI compliance?

    Look at the trends for Cardholder Present fraud in the UK, look at the same for the US, and then tell me that we have got it wrong!

    The Payment Monkey is back.

    • January 7, 2011 at 5:20 PM

      I understand your frustration. However, if merchants and service providers had been left to their own devices, they never would have agreed to spend on security until the government had stepped in. And you think any government action would have resulted in a better effort? It’s the age old example of, “you can pay me now, or pay me later.” Most of the time, the “pay me later” option costs hundreds of times more than the “pay me now” option.

      Don’t get me wrong, card present transaction fraud is a risk, but is a very low and manageable risk based on the statistics I’ve seen from the US and UK. The real threat of fraud exists with card not present transactions where it is growing at a 25% to 30% clip worldwide. No one seems to be stepping up to cure that issue and the PCI DSS surely does nothing to solve it.


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