Posts Tagged ‘compliance


Small And Mid-Sized Businesses

At this year’s PCI Community Meeting, the push was to address the security issues faced by small and mid-sized businesses, otherwise referred to as SMB. However, in my opinion, the approaches being suggested are still too complex. Great security results from simplicity, not complexity. As a result, I propose the following approach for SMBs because SMB executives typically have little time to fully educate themselves in information security, let alone, PCI. And while I am of the opinion that executives should have such knowledge, it is just not happening.

There Are No “Silver Bullet” Solutions

First and foremost. There are no “silver bullet” solutions that will entirely remove your organization from PCI scope. Any vendor telling you that their solution removes your organization from PCI scope is lying to you. If you hear such a statement from a vendor, the vendor does not know what they are talking about and their statements regarding PCI should no longer be trusted. The bottom line is that, if your organization accepts credit/debit cards for payment for goods/services, the organization will always have some PCI scope. The least amount of scope an organization can achieve is complying with the requirements listed in the SAQ A. There is nothing less. Anyone telling you otherwise does not know what they are talking about.


This is probably the biggest single thing an SMB can do. In this day and age, there is no reason that any organization needs to retain CHD. Period. The most common business justification is that the organization does recurring transactions and that is the reason to retain CHD. Processors have a solution for that situation and many others. So I say it again. There is no valid business reason for any organization to retain CHD. None. Nada. Zip.

The first question out of an SMB executive’s mouth to a payment solution vendor should be, “Does your solution store cardholder or sensitive authentication data?” If the answer is anything other than an immediate and definitive “NO”, the meeting or telephone call is over, done, complete. There is nothing more to discuss. SMBs must stop being an easy target for attacks. The easiest way to do that is not having the CHD in the first place.

The second question that a payment vendor should be asked is, “How does your solution minimize my organization’s PCI scope?” If the vendor cannot provide you with a whitepaper on this subject, run away. If the documentation provided by the vendor leaves you with more questions than answers for PCI compliance, you also need to run away. In all likelihood, if this is what you encounter, the vendor’s PCI compliance is questionable, complex or requires too much effort on your part to be PCI compliant. This question should result in a one to three page whitepaper on PCI and how the vendor’s solution minimizes your organization’s scope.

So what solutions reduce scope to the minimum?

If you are a traditional brick and mortar retailer, end-to-end encryption (E2EE) from the card terminal, also known as the point of interaction (POI), to the transaction processor. PCI has a validation program called point-to-point encryption (P2PE). P2PE solutions are independently validated to ensure that they are secure. Solutions such as Shift4’s Dollars on the Net, First Data’s TransArmor and Verifone’s VeriShield are E2EE solutions that could meet the P2PE standard, but for various reasons the providers chose not to validate them to the P2PE standard. The key capability for any such solution is that the solution encrypts the CHD/SAD immediately when it is read from the card and none of your organization’s technology can decrypt the information and therefore read it.

If your organization does eCommerce, then you want to use a redirect or iFrame to process transactions in order to reduce PCI scope. The best example of a redirect is when a merchant uses PayPal for processing payments. The merchant’s Web site has a PayPal button that sends the customer to PayPal who then processes the customer’s payment transaction. At no time does the sensitive authentication data (SAD) encounter the merchant’s Web site. One of the concerns from merchants about redirects is the myth that customers vacate their shopping carts because they are redirected to a different site for payment. While this was true in the early days of eCommerce, with the increased use of PayPal and similar payment services, customers seem to have gotten over that practice and vacated shopping carts are no longer an issue. But if this is still a concern, use this as a teaching moment and educate your customer base that you do the redirect to ensure the security of their SAD.

An iFrame is essentially a Web page within a Web page. But the key thing from a PCI compliance perspective is that the iFrame is produced and managed by a third party, not the merchant. An iFrame can be a Web page, but more often than not it is a series of fields that gather the SAD for conducting a payment transaction. As with the redirect, the SAD never comes into contact with the merchant’s Web site.

Both of these solutions take your organization’s Web site out of scope so you do not need external and internal vulnerability scans and penetration tests. However, just because your Web site does not have to go through the rigors of PCI compliance, you still need to ensure its security. See my post on SAQ A and SAQ A-EP for a more detailed discussion on this topic.


Tokenization is the act of encrypting or tokenizing the primary account number (PAN) so that when it is returned to the merchant for storage it has no value to anyone if it is disclosed. Tokenization can occur at the time a card is swiped or dipped at the terminal or it can be done by the transaction processor at the back end of the transaction. Regardless of where the tokenization occurs, paired with E2EE or P2PE, tokenization further minimizes PCI scope.

If your organization needs to perform recurring transactions such as with subscriptions or automatic reorders, tokens can be generated by the processor so that they can be used just like a PAN. While a token is not a PAN, in situations where they can be reused for future transactions, it is incumbent upon the merchant to protect access to the token so that it cannot be sent to the processor for fraudulent charges.

And that is it. Not storing CHD, E2EE/P2PE and tokenization will reduce an organization’s PCI compliance footprint to the absolute minimum. It really is that simple. However, finding the solutions that bring all of that to the table is where the work comes in. However, any SMB that asks the right questions of its vendors can put together a solution that minimizes their scope and provides protection for CHD/SAD as good as with the big boys.


Where Compliance Fits

Based on some of the comments I get from blog readers and articles I see espousing the “compliance is not security” mantra, I think it is time for a refresher on where compliance fits into an organization’s security program or any other audit/assessment program.

As a reminder, Miriam Webster defines compliance as:

“Conformity in fulfilling official requirements”

Therefore, for PCI, an organization is conforming to the PCI DSS when they assess. For ISO 27K, the organization is conforming to the ISO 27K standard. For a financial audit, an organization conforms to the Generally Accepted Audit Principles (GAAP). The list can go on and on.

Where things get confusing and messy is whether or not the compliance program is detailed and tight enough to ensure security. Programs such as the PCI DSS, ISO 27K and others have to be written in such a way that any organization (regardless of technology, architecture, applications, etc.) can assess to it. Whether we are talking about the PCI DSS, ISO 27K, COBIT or any other assessment program, there must be flexibility to allow for all sorts of solutions, not just a preferred or “perfect” one. As a result, there is a lot of flexibility built in that produces a not so tight security program. This therefore means that being secure requires going beyond what the compliance program requires.

But compliance is only a part of an overall security program. I have discussed the control triad in prior posts, but it bears repeating here. There are three parts to any effective security program: protection, detection and correction.

Control TriadA good compliance program is part detection and part correction. The detection side of compliance relates to detecting controls that are not functioning as designed or are missing altogether. Changes to the environment are always the culprit in controls not functioning properly or missing. The correction side of compliance is defining what needs to be corrected in order to address the shortcomings determined during an audit/assessment.

Where the “compliance does not equal security” naysayers first go wrong is with ignoring execution. A compliance program is all about assessing the execution of an organization’s security program and ensuring that an organization is executing that program flawlessly. But an annual assessment such as with the current PCI process is only part of the overall compliance process. Compliance must be assessed constantly which is why the PCI SSC is introducing the concept of business as usual (BAU). BAU is meant to drive organizations to constantly assess compliance with requirements based on their risk assessment. Some requirements may have to be assessed daily, whereas other requirements might only be assessed weekly, monthly or even semi-annually

A working compliance program points out any execution issues with the security program and recommends solutions. To paraphrase the numerous security professionals that has pointed this out over the years, “To ensure the security of our organization, we have to get it right every minute of every hour of every day. Attackers only have to get it right once.” Therefore a compliance program is the mechanism that keeps the security program functioning as close to “right” as is humanly possible. But as I always point out, security is not perfect. So even with a good compliance program, security issues will still occur.

But that is where security has its biggest issues are with execution. If organizations could execute any security program, even the PCI DSS, with almost 100% accuracy every day, the number and seriousness of data breaches would be virtually non-existent. But that is where most organizations get burned is with execution. I have yet to encounter any organization that can execute all parts of any security program above 90% and that is on a good day. In most cases organizations are well below that percentage. As a result, regardless of the security measures in place, the controls are not functioning as defined and therefore security holes abound resulting in a myriad of ways to defeat security. Add in the human errors that occur and I think you start to understand the challenges of keeping a security program working effectively.

The second place that the naysayers go wrong is not recognizing the inherent limitations of the assessment programs. Every security program I have ever encountered has a multitude of limitations due to the necessity that they fit all situations. Then there is the fact that they are, after all, mere baselines for security, not a “be all to end all”. To truly be secure an organization must go well beyond what the PCI DSS, ISO 27K or any other security programs call out. That is not to say that a company cannot be reasonably secure following only these programs. But then we go back to my earlier statement that the program must be executed close to 100% compliance every day which is where organizations get burned. It is not the program that causes the security issues; it’s the inability to execute the security program consistently that is the cause.

As I said earlier, all security programs are the bare minimum for security. As a result, in order to be secure an organization needs to go beyond the requirements specified by any security program. Unfortunately, it is the rare organization that goes beyond any of the recognized security programs. Why? For most organizations, the security personnel just do not have the time to develop their security program beyond what is already called out by ISO 27K or PCI DSS. Some of this is due to staffing issues, but more often than not, it is due to a lack of upper management recognition and understanding of what true security really takes in personnel, time and other resources. A lot of that lack of understanding comes from the organization’s risk assessment or more likely the lack of one. Without a good understanding of the information security risks to the organization, it is very hard to determine what measures need to be taken, why they need to be taken and what resources are necessary. Once everyone can understand the risks, then a true security program can be developed for the organization taking into account the PCI DSS, ISO 27K or any other security standards that need to be followed.

Finally, compliance programs are never ever static. They need to be constantly adjusted to reflect the introduction of new technologies, changes to the existing environment and the removal of technologies.

For example, if an organization implements a new security information and event management (SIEM) solution, the compliance program needs to be changed to reflect that new SIEM. The most likely changes are the addition of new conditions that will be monitored for and alerts generated. The compliance program needs to add those new conditions to their testing and make sure that alerts are truly generated when the conditions are encountered. In addition, if the new SIEM introduces any changes to existing alerts, those changes also need to be adjusted in the compliance testing. Finally, if some SIEM conditions are being removed, the compliance program needs to reflect that removal as well.

Changes to the environment also need to be reflected in the compliance program. Application changes can result in changes to the compliance program particularly if the application controls its own authentication processes, encryption of sensitive data and other critical controls. Another area is network changes that also need to be reflected in a compliance program. While adding new physical locations is typically only a minor change to a compliance program, changing firewalls, routers or switches can result in significant changes to the compliance program.

One of the biggest things neglected with compliance is when technology is removed from the environment. Nine times out of 10, the compliance team is never notified of the decommissioning of equipment. Security professionals might think that compliance is not affected if something is removed. However the control environment might be significantly affected with the removal of technology because security is unaware of other areas that are relying on a technology for controls. Then once the compliance team comes out for their assessment they find that, with the removal of certain technology, there are now numerous controls that are no longer performing as designed and security gaps exist as a result.

An example of a change that can adversely affect compliance but is typically overlooked is staff reductions. One of my clients a number of years ago terminated a number of personnel in an effort to save costs. A couple of the staff let go were performing manual processes that were critical to monitoring the security environment and identifying security issues that were critical to their PCI compliance efforts. Management believed that these people were superfluous to their operation, i.e., a nice way of saying they were unnecessary overhead, so they were terminated. Obviously when these people were terminated, those critical controls were no longer functioning. To add insult to injury, this situation was not identified until almost 10 months later during their PCI compliance assessment. Then the organization had only two months to somehow put these critical controls back into place without the necessary resources to do them manually. What eventually happened was that people had to step up and add these tasks to their own already heavy workloads. While that got the organization through their PCI assessment for the current period, the stress of keeping those controls operating as designed proved to be too much and some people quit creating new control failure situations. Ultimately management had to admit that more people were needed as well as some new tools were necessary to minimize control failures as well as minimize the number of people required.

The bottom line is that the compliance assessment process is the check and balance to make sure that an organization’s security program is designed appropriately and is functioning effectively. Hopefully you now have an appreciation as to the purpose of an effective compliance program and why it is important to the overall security process.

So the next time you say that “compliance is not security” think about this post and understand the implications of your statement. Without the compliance process, you have no idea as to whether your security program is effective or not.


Why Security Fails

I am writing this more than anything because I am dreading taking my lawn mower apart to replace the cable that engages the self-propulsion system. From what I have seen online, some sadistic engineer has made this an ugly job of taking the bottom end of the mower mostly apart just to get to the drive system to unhook the cable in the first place. But I digress.

The primary reason security fails at most organizations is the level of complexity involved in their IT. Organizations have legacy systems, other internal systems, outsourced systems, cloud solutions and a sundry variety of third parties and business partners. With all of these solutions in play, is it any wonder why organizations cannot identify whether or not they have been breached? Where do you start and where do you end? How do you determine if it is a false positive or real? It is such a hard task in fact, that no one wants to or has the time to take the effort to research every incident or they do only cursory research resulting in what they think happened.

Next to complexity the next reason security fails is the reliance on security tools. It is not that tools are not important, but there is mistaken belief that tools are all that you need to be secure. Tools are necessary to identify and focus personnel on potential issues, but tools by themselves are not the complete answer. All security professionals have to do is look to the ubiquitous intrusion prevention system (IPS) that almost every organization has as the prime example of a tool that does not live up to its potential. IPSs are installed but are hardly ever enabled to actually prevent intrusions nor can they truly prevent all intrusions even when fully enabled.

But tools bring other issues. You have organizations that seem to have every security tool under the sun. Now let us be clear here. Organizations may have lots of security tools; however in my experience very few of those tools are ever fully implemented. There are lots of reasons for this but one of the biggest is the revolving door of security leadership. A leader comes in and they have their own security vendor alliances and push their vendor tool agenda. However, that leader either moves on or gets ejected and the next security leader comes along with their security tool world view. As a result, organizations acquire a lot of tools but none are ever fully implemented because of the leadership revolving door.

The second reason security tools tend to miss full implementation is that the implementation runs into significant issues that halt or slow their implementation. There are two reasons for this situation. The first is vendor hyperbole about their solution. My example of the IPS is a prime example of hyperbole. How many IPSs were bought under the promise that it was a “silver bullet” solution?

The second reason tools miss full implementation goes back to the first reason security fails – the complexity of the environment. Environmental complexity makes implementation of anything difficult and, in some cases, impossible. In the case of security tools, the most common situation that stymies a tool’s rollout is the acquisition of a new company. Resources get reallocated to the acquisition and when the fire drill is over, people have forgotten about the tool implementation that was going on before that drill. In the end, the tools do not fully integrate into the environment for whatever reason and therefore leaves gaps in coverage.

But the last reason tools fail is due to a lack of ongoing care and feeding. The tool gets implemented and then gets turned over to the team that will keep it functioning into the future. As time goes on people rotate through the area, training on the tool is not kept up, maintenance on the tool suffers and slowly but surely the tool becomes ineffective.

My favorite example of this was a SIEM implementation at one of my clients. When it first went in it was amazing what it identified both from a security perspective, but also a variety of operational issues that had never had any exposure. However over the next five years, the SIEM system became a backwater for security. There was a belief by IT and security management that the SIEM was somehow self-managing and did not need high caliber personnel. That last year I reviewed the SIEM I was interviewing one of the personnel responsible for it and they said that they had practically tuned out all of the false positives. I inquired why and was shown in the demonstration of the SIEM. Sure enough, very few alerts were even generated and those were few and far between. But then it became alarmingly clear as to why when the person pulled up the systems network map generated by the tool. Most of the corporate network was missing. Further review of the SIEM generated diagram indicated that the organization’s move from their corporate data center to a better equipped co-location facility had apparently not been reflected in the SIEM. How this occurred was a discussion over the next months and it was never clear how the ball got dropped.

Then there are the organizational culture issues. A lot of personnel seem more interested in trying to dodge responsibility and accountability like it is the plague. The more I encounter this attitude, the more I think this behavior can be traced to employers making their employees feel like they are a dime a dozen and can be replaced on demand. But I also believe it is a result of the ugly corporate cultures that have been created over the last couple of decades.

There is no denying that some organizations have created corporate cultures that stress “dog eat dog”, “step over the bodies” and similar tactics if you intend to get ahead. I chalk this up to Jack Welch and his GE corporate culture which he claimed weeded out all but the best of the best. But it is also the result of our own culture and society through reality shows like ‘Survivor’, ‘The Apprentice’, ‘Big Brother’ and similar shows that glorify underhandedness and other questionable tactics versus the virtue of pure teamwork to getting ahead. Because these corporate cultures want people to go after one another, is it even possible that any progress is accomplished in corporations. That is because everyone is so scared of being attacked and losing their job, they do anything to avoid that possibility by tossing anyone else under the bus at the first sign of trouble. It rapidly devolves into a gross and disgusting exercise in a swirling mess of finger pointing and the “Blame Game”.

You then add into this toxic environment IT Operations and/or IT Security personnel who are culturally emasculated thanks to that terrific previously discussed corporate culture borrowed from GE. These people care, but only to a point. The culture just implies that the boss will end your career if you ever bring them “bad news” because people are a dime a dozen. All this results in a situation where people might recognize an alert or something awry, but are reluctant to bring it to anyone’s attention because of the adverse consequences that will likely result. After all, it is the low level minions that get let go first in these situations long before the CISO or CSO. And those minions do not get the great golden parachutes that higher ups get. So why should they bother to put their necks out?

All you have to do is to take a look at the Neiman Marcus and Target breaches. In both cases security operations personnel received alerts indicating something might be wrong. In both cases, these personnel wrote off those alerts and moved on. According to the media, at least in the case of Target these personnel notified higher ups who in turn contacted their security solutions providers and then those people were told to ignore the alerts because they were likely false positive results. However, such a response reinforces the misconception that the tools are not factual when more research should be done to prove that fact.

A long time ago, I paraphrased Tom Hanks’ character Jimmy Dugan in the movie ‘A League of their Own’. “Security is supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it.” Security is hard enough even without all of the other barriers some organizations put in the way.

As a result, is it any wonder that organizations outsource security to a managed service provider? Outsourcing takes security out of the corporate culture and away from internal politics. It also puts all of the tool implementation responsibilities on the outsourcer’s back, not your organization. As long as the outsourcer is kept in the loop regarding changes to the environment, you can have much better assurance that your environment is actually being monitored. And that is where most outsourcing arrangements end up going bad is that the outsourcer is unware of changes made and therefore cannot maintain security because now there are gaps.

Regardless of whether you outsource or you get your organization to own up to the responsibilities required to maintain security, security requires a significant commitment of any organization.

Oh and for those of you that ended up curious about the outcome of my lawn mower project. I finally stepped up after writing this post and got the drive cable replaced. It turned out to be quite the project, but thanks to the Internet and a few postings by people, I had a decent path to follow. The hardest part of the project was that the aforementioned sadistic engineer mounted the cable attachment on the top of the drive mechanism making it a true exercise in patience and manual dexterity to reconnect the new drive cable to the transmission. It took more time to get just that one task done than the teardown and reassembly processes. However, I now have a self-propelled lawn mower again.


The Third Party Dilemma

I am starting to see more and more of this situation with my mid-size and larger clients, the third party that is using the client’s network to process and transmit cardholder data (CHD).

Where I consistently encounter this are at internal cafeterias where a third party operates the cafeteria and is providing their own point of sale (POS) solution to process card transactions. Another example where this is common are mailrooms that are operated by third parties and employees can buy stamps and ship personal packages with the third party taking cards for payment. Finally, another place where this is common is health care facilities, particularly hospitals, where the cafeteria is operated by a third party, the gift shop is operated by another third party, the pharmacy is operated by a third party and so on. As we go forward, I would expect that this situation will become more and more commonplace as organizations outsource more and more back office functions to third parties and focus on their core business.

A lot of these third parties have ended up on clients’ networks. They may or may not have been segmented away from the rest of the client’s network, but they typically sit behind the clients’ firewalls and other security measures. With the focus on requirements 12.8 and 12.9 regarding the management of third parties, these outsourcing environments are receiving new scrutiny as clients begin reassessing how these third parties are provided network and Internet access as well as PCI compliance, contract and other regulatory and legal issues.

So what are your options if you are involved in such arrangements? Here are some thoughts.

  • Ignore the problem and hope it goes away. Yes, believe it or not there are a lot of organizations that have found out that their organization is chock full of such situations and have just tossed up their hands and have decided to put off addressing the issue. Unfortunately, if the organization is required to perform a PCI assessment, this is not an option and they end up having to address it as part of their own assessment. Unfortunately, the problem does not go away because the third parties ask for an AOC of the organization for the network services they are providing.
  • Wide Area Ethernet. In this scenario, your organization becomes a telecommunications carrier providing Internet access to any third party over a separate WAN. This requires Ethernet WAN or Metro Ethernet equipment that support WAN grade service versus LAN grade service. Third parties are provided access to the Internet but must provide their own infrastructure such as firewalls and switches. The bottom line is that your organization becomes no different than any other carrier such as Verizon or AT&T and will be out of scope.
  • Wide Area Wi-Fi. Similar to Wide Area Ethernet using the same WAN infrastructure equipment but using Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g/n/ac) to deliver network access. While this avoids installation of wiring infrastructure, it means a separate secured Wi-Fi network from your existing Wi-Fi. In addition, depending on how it is engineered, it could suffer from device overload if all of your third parties are in the same general area of your facility. But as with Wide Area Ethernet, your organization is considered a carrier and out of scope.
  • Another wireless alternative is putting your third parties on cellular connections. Where this can be problematic is in facilities that have poor cellular connectivity. In these situations, the organization may have installed cellular repeaters for carriers throughout the facility to improve cellular signals. However, not all of the facility may have repeater coverage where the third parties are located so there could be additional costs involved to get the coverage needed. Like Wi-Fi, cellular repeaters have limitations on the total number of connected devices, so areas where employees and the third parties congregate such as cafeterias could have issues with cellular access at breakfast, lunch and dinner times. This can be mitigated, but could create service issues for all users at heavy usage times.
  • P2PE or E2EE. Use of either of these solutions depends on your third party’s ability to use such a solution with their POS. With these solutions, you can create a separate VLAN for your third parties and they can all attached their points of interaction (POI, aka card terminals) to that VLAN and the traffic will be encrypted out to their respective processors. Where this solution does not work is when the third party uses a POS solution that does not support P2PE/E2EE. In addition, if all your third parties do not support P2PE/E2EE you may have to have a second solution for them. So it may be simpler to use one of the other solutions for consistency.
  • Physically Separate Third Party Network. This is a feasible option if you want to avoid the Wide Area equipment costs and requirements. However, the equipment used must be physically separate from your existing LAN equipment so as to qualify as being considered a carrier versus a service provider. As with the Wide Area solutions, you will not be providing firewalls or any other security services, just access to the Internet. Any security measures on this network would be the responsibility of each third party.
  • Separate Third Party VLAN. This is the option I typically encounter in most organizations. The organization’s network has a VLAN separate from its other networks but still relying on the organization’s infrastructure. The problem here is that this is not a carrier network because it is not physically separate from the internal network. Yes, there are ACLs in place that isolate the VLAN from others, but the infrastructure is shared and could come into scope if changes cause that to happen. This can still be acceptable if all third party traffic is encrypted such as with a VPN or P2PE/E2EE. But where this solution gets into trouble is when the organization providing the VLAN is also doing the encryption on behalf of the third parties. In the end, a VLAN solution will have to be assessed as a service provider because the organization is providing network access as a service not as a carrier.
  • Contract with their own carriers. This is an option, but potentially a rather messy option. That is because your third parties will need to contract with their own carrier which could create a wiring nightmare in your facilities. Particularly when new third parties come in or change carriers. There are ways to manage this but it requires planning and working with your third parties to make this effort successful.

These approaches all have their pluses and minuses, but hopefully you now have some ideas as to how to handle this issue.


By All Means, Do As Little As Possible

I write this because I have had enough of arguing over the lowest common denominator when it comes to securing networks, servers and applications. Reading the articles in the various media and trade journals, one would get the distinct impression that putting forth any sort of effort is beyond a lot of peoples’ capacity.

Do you people complaining about the difficulty of achieving compliance with a security framework ever listen to yourselves? I would say the answer is “No” because if you did, you would understand where I am going.

Do you realize that you are arguing over doing the bare minimum? I would guess that would be a resounding “No” because, again, you would understand where I am going.

If none of this rings a bell, then maybe this does. When was the last time anyone told you that only doing the minimum was acceptable? If they did, then they are people I would not want to associate with because they are likely on their way out the door as you will be shortly once that breach occurs.

All security frameworks are a bare minimum. They do not guarantee security of anything. What they do is define the “best practices” or “common knowledge” of what it takes to have a reasonable chance of being secure. But it gets worse. Security frameworks require perfect execution, i.e., being compliant 24x7x365, in order to succeed. And as those of you complaining are rudely finding out, that just does not happen when people are involved.

In order to address the shortcomings of people, security frameworks are layered. You must have heard the phrase “layered approach” time and again during security discussions. The layers are there so that when people fail, their failure does not result in a total failure of an organization’s security posture. Where things go wrong is when there are multiple failures. It does not matter that things are layered when the vast majority of those layers are circumvented by multiple failures.

Oh, you do not think that is how a breach happens? Read the Verizon DBIR or PCI reports on breaches and it lists out the multiple processes that failed that led to the breach, not just a spear fishing email or the breach of a firewall. Those were the start of it all, but it was a lot of other things that ultimately led to the success of the breach.

Another rude awakening for management and security professionals alike is how easily all of that security technology they have invested in does nothing once a phishing email corrupts an insider’s account. That is because a lot of organizations’ security posture is like an M&M candy – hard on the outside with that soft chocolate center on the inside. If you go back to the Verizon reports, read the details of how many attacks came to fruition over insider accounts being corrupted. They may not necessarily be categorized as insider attacks, but an insider was compromised as part of the successful attack.

Which brings me to security awareness training and the fact that people consistently complain that it is worthless. Did you people really believe that one session, once a year is really going to change peoples’ bad habits? If you did, I have some property I would like to sell you. You must harp on this topic constantly and consistently. I know that is not what you want to hear, but people only learn by being told repeatedly to stop their bad habits. Even though a lot of people approach this subject by making it annoying and painful, it does not have to be that way. But it is the only way to have an effect and it will not happen overnight and not everyone will learn the lessons. Security awareness takes years and lots of patience, but it does eventually pay off.

The bottom line is security is a war between you and the people that want your organization’s intellectual property, card data, medical records, financial information, whatever information you are trying to protect. Wars are won or lost on the strategy used and the battle intensity of the soldiers involved. Wars and battles are not won with mediocrity which is the approach upon which you are arguing. Mediocrity in war is how people die, not how they survive.

Let me know how that mediocre approach works out. That is, if you are even around to let me know.


PCI SWOT Analysis

SWOT – strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats

I had someone ask me about my thoughts on this sort of analysis of the PCI DSS. While these comments are PCI focused, I found that they actually apply to all security frameworks.


The biggest strength in any security framework, PCI DSS included, is they are all based on the “best practices” from a wide variety of leading experts and organizations. Essentially, security frameworks are the shared knowledge base of what it takes to have basic security. We talk today about sharing breach information better and potentially in near real time, but security frameworks are the original method of sharing such information.


Unfortunately, I see a number of weaknesses with security frameworks.

The largest weakness with security frameworks I see is that most people, including a lot of security professionals, seem to believe that complying with the framework is all it takes to be secure. With the PCI DSS a lot of this misinformation can be laid at the feet of the card brands. It was the card brands that originally marketed the PCI DSS as the “be all, to end all” for securing the payment process.

The unfortunate fact of life for security frameworks is that they only minimize and manage security risks, they rarely ever eliminate them. Therefore, even following the PCI DSS to the letter is no guarantee that an organization could not be breached. Yet this concept of risk minimization, risk management and the fact that security is not perfect consistently gets missed by executives. So when the inevitable breach occurs, executives go after the security people for supposedly misleading them.

Another area of weakness is the time with which it takes to make an update to the framework. In October 2014, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) issued a bulletin on secure sockets layer (SSL) indicating that they had found a flaw in the protocol and that they no longer found the protocol secure. A few weeks later the Internet was introduced to POODLE and SSL was declared insecure. It took a few months for the PCI SSC to react to this and officially declare SSL was no longer to be relied upon for secure communications. It took vulnerability scanners almost a month to begin flagging SSL implementations as high vulnerabilities as the CVE had not yet been updated. And we were recently informed that it will be April at the earliest before we will get the latest version of the PCI DSS. In the meantime, all of this administrivia did not stop attackers from using POODLE to their advantage.

The final weakness I see with security frameworks is that organizations find it impossible to execute them consistently at near 100%, 24×7. In theory the PCI DSS will provide reasonable security for all but the most dedicated attacks such as with advanced persistent threat (APT). For an organization to achieve basic security, they would have to execute the requirements of the PCI DSS at least at 95%+ and would have to remediate any issues within a few days. Unfortunately as we have seen in the recently released Merchant Acquirer Committee study, merchants are typically only compliant with the PCI DSS between 39% and 64% of the time – far from 95%+. Verizon’s recently released PCI report backs this up with their findings. The bottom line is that most organizations lack the discipline to execute any security framework consistently enough to achieve basic information security.


The biggest opportunity I see for the PCI DSS is it gives organizations the impetus to simplify their environments. The biggest reason for the failure to execute the PCI DSS consistently is because a lot of organizations have technology environments that mimic a Rube Goldberg cartoon. Only by simplifying that environment will an organization have a reasonable chance of securing it.

Another opportunity this gives organizations is a reason to enhance their security operations. Most organizations run bare bones security operations no different than other areas. However, what PCI compliance assessments typically point out is that those security operations are grossly understaffed and not capable of ensuring an organization maintains its compliance at that 95%+ level.

Related to these two opportunities is what the PCI SSC calls business as usual (BAU). BAU is the embedding of the relevant PCI requirements into an organization’s business processes to make it easier to identify non-compliance as soon as possible so that the non-compliance situation can be rectified. BAU is primarily designed to address the execution weakness but can also have a significant effect on the other weaknesses.

Finally, the last opportunity is to address the failings of an organization’s security awareness program. Organizations finally come to the realization that all it takes to defeat all of their expensive security technology is human error. The only way to address human error is extensive security awareness training. No one likes this, but in the end it is the only thing that remains when you have implemented all of the requisite security technology.


The obvious threat that will never go away is the attackers. As long as we have our interconnected and networked world, attackers will continue their attacks.

The final threat is complacency. A lot of organizations think that once they achieve PCI compliance that their work is done and that could not be further from the truth. Security is a journey not something you achieve and then move on to the next issue. The reason is that no organization is static. Therefore security must constantly evolve and change to address organizational change.

There are likely even more items that could be added to each of these categories. However, in my humble opinion, these are the key points.


The 2015 Verizon PCI Report

A lot has been written about this year’s Verizon PCI Compliance Report particularly about how 80% of organizations cannot maintain their compliance. And at the very end of the report are a number of issues raised by Verizon regarding why maintaining compliance is so difficult for most organizations. It is those issues that I would like to discuss.

Scale and Complexity of Requirements

“I just don’t understand why this ERP upgrade is going to take 18 months to complete. Can’t we just put the DVD in the drive and upgrade it like Microsoft Office?” – Anonymous Executive to IT Management

The same could be said about any security framework. If organizations are struggling with PCI compliance, imagine how they are struggling with HIPAA, FISMA or ISO 27K compliance. Compliance with any of the security frameworks is not easy.

I disagree with Verizon’s claim that it is related to the fact that most organizations do not know the PCI DSS. After six years and three versions, I rarely run into an organization today that does not have a basic, overall understanding of the PCI DSS. These organizations may have some interesting ideas on what sections and requirements of the DSS mean, but they have definitely studied it and read about it. Therefore the idea that organizations are ignorant on the subject is far from the truth in my experience.

In my opinion, where the problem lies is that most organizations have not truly managed their technology environments thanks to interference with mergers and acquisitions, partially implemented applications, bring your own device (BYOD), the Cloud and the plethora of other disruptions that complicate organizations. Today, IT is a very important part of any organization, but it is not managed like it was in the “good old days”. There are too many stakeholders and the consumerization of technology has not helped the situation by making everyone an IT “expert”.

Most organization’s IT operations these days are a hodge-podge of technologies, applications and networks. I would equate it to the technological equivalent of a house’s attic and garage combined. We all know we should clean and straighten them out, but that project always sits on the back burner as there are other, more important or fun things to do.

As a result, for most organizations, there is just no easy way to simplify, segregate and isolate cardholder data (CHD) and comply with the PCI DSS without making the environment even more complex. Starting over is not an option for a lot of organizations.

That said I have encountered a few very brave organizations that have done just that, started over. Management at these organizations came to the realization that fixing the problem was too complex and expensive and that starting over was the cheaper, safer and easier way to go.

Uncertainty about Scope and Impact

“I don’t know much about PCI, but I do know my scope.” – Anonymous Manager to QSA

When application developers cannot explain how their applications work on a technical level. When anyone in any department can be in the IT business. When security personnel are order takers for firewall configuration changes reviewed and approved by management that have no clue as to the implications of those changes. When network people are providing a communications utility for communications traffic but have no idea how that traffic traverses the network.

Is it any wonder we have no idea how to scope a PCI assessment?

But there are larger problems as to why scoping is difficult. The root cause of why scoping is such an issue is that everyone’s risk tolerance is different. I drive race cars at very obscene speeds on race tracks (mostly) that I am sure a lot of people would view as insane. However, I think that people that skydive and do rock climbing are the insane ones. All of this points to everyone’s acceptance and avoidance of risk based on their own views.

There is a sidebar in the Verizon report calling the PCI SSC to provide guidance about scoping. Good luck with that. The Council had a scoping SIG a number of years ago that imploded due to the aforementioned issues with everyone’s risk tolerance. The result was a small band of people from the SIG that published the PCI Open Scoping Toolkit. The PCI Open Scoping Toolkit is not perfect, but it provides a framework to have an intelligent discussion about how to go about scoping and determine what is in-scope and why.

The key to solving the scoping issue resides with the organization, not their QSA, acquiring bank or any other external entity. Organizations need to use the PCI Open Scoping Toolkit to come up with their scoping framework and definitions. Once that has been agreed, then an organization needs to map out their applications and networks to determine their true scope. This is where tools from vendors such as Tufin, FireMon, SolarWinds and the like can provide assistance by documenting the network and then simulating data flows over the network.

With that approach, it is incumbent on QSAs and other auditors to accept these definitions for their assessment unless there is some significant or gross error in the organizations definitions. This will address the complaint that organizations have with QSAs. How often have we heard something such as, “The last QSA told us this was compliant.” If we all play by the same risk definitions the client has provided, then statements like that should go away.

Once an organization truly understands and has defined its scope, it can then understand the impact of existing operations and any changes.

The Compliance Cycle

This is what the Council is attempting to address with business as usual (BAU). The idea is that with security practices and monitoring embedded within an organization’s operations, security issues can be quickly identified and addressed before they become serious.

However, for this to work, organizations need to have their scope known as well has how their IT environment actually works. Without that knowledge, embedding the PCI DSS into the organization is a futile exercise.

Lack of Resources

Every organization is running “lean and mean” these days. Cost control is king. As a result, resources are stretched, sometimes to the point that any additional activities just cannot be accommodated without hiring someone. And hiring is not allowed. So implementing BAU is not going to go well if it goes at all.

On the information security front, finding qualified people is nearly impossible, even for consultancies. Organizations are finding that most information security professionals are heading to consultancies because the pay is better. Since security is hard on both the mind and the body, most people want to be reimbursed as much as possible for their efforts. As a result, most organizations cannot pay for in-house security resources. And then, even if they do ante up, typically the person that takes the position either gets bored once they fix everything, or gets frustrated when the organization refused to make required changes to ensure or enhance security.

Enter the managed security services provider or MSSP. The concept is that the MSSP provides the security talent at a more reasonable price yet organizations get the quality personnel needed to enhance and stabilize their security.

Where this goes wrong is that the MSSP and the customer are not on the same page as to each other’s responsibilities. This is from a mixture of sales people over promising as well as prospective customers hearing what they want to hear. Never mind that it is all documented in a contract.

To address this situation, the PCI SSC has come up with a new requirement, 12.8.5, which states:

“Verify the entity maintains information about which PCI DSS requirements are managed by each service provider, and which are managed by the entity.”

Under the v3 Attestation Of Compliance (AOC) form, this will not be as big a problem for an organization to maintain. However, if an organization has a lot of service providers and/or the service providers have v2 AOCs; this could be a very daunting task.

Lack of Insight in Existing Business Processes

“I’ve only been in this position for [2, 3 or 4] months. So I’m not fully up to speed on everything we do.” – Anonymous Manager to QSA

“I’d give you an organization chart, but it would be out of date by the time I printed it.” – Anonymous Human Resources Manager to QSA

In today’s fast changing business world, people get shuffled out of departments and divisions faster than people can manage the changes. As a result, finding anyone with any sort of insight into an organization’s business processes can be extremely difficult, if not impossible.

Then we go back to my earlier comment about lack of IT management. With the advent of the Cloud, some business divisions and departments have totally sidestepped the formal IT organization and set up their own operations in the Cloud. Did they know what they were doing? No! But that was beside the point, they at least now have IT solutions, never mind if they are secure or implemented properly. The only way to find these rogue operations is to quiz everyone in the organization about how they operate and what they use to operate.

Even then, I have run into situations where a new payment channel pops out of the woodwork at the last moment. Next year’s assessment issue or we will not get the one we are currently doing out the door.

Misplaced Confidence in Existing Information Security Maturity

A lot of organizations that have been doing IT for years and years get caught in this trap. Just because you have been doing IT for an eternity does not mean that you have been doing it right for the same amount of time or that you are doing it correctly now.

In a lot of IT organizations it is an unfortunate fact of life that areas such as special projects, business continuity planning or information security were used as those “safe” places to put the former IT Vice President or Manager out to pasture so they could retire. It did not matter if the individual could handle the job; it was a place to park someone and provide a gentle way out of the organization.

A rare few individuals made the transition and actually took up the challenge of mastering their new responsibilities. However, the vast majority just checked out, collected their pay check and then retired. This left the organization with a very immature security operation compared to the rest of IT’s operations. Add into the mix the changing landscape of IT with business divisions and departments doing their own thing unbeknownst to anyone and you can see how the maturity of information security could be easily misunderstood.

Then along comes the QSA to do the PCI gap analysis and it all comes to a head as the organization comes to the rude awakening that all is not as good as they thought and that significant gaps exist. To add insult to injury, the organization finds that fixing the gaps is going to take a lot longer than the 90 days they had set aside for that activity so that they could get their Report On Compliance (ROC) done in the same year.

The Verizon report is a great read and provides a lot of insights. Everyone should get a copy and read it, take it to heart and address your organization’s security shortcomings.


Optiv Security is looking for experienced QSAs for their PCI practice. If you are an experienced QSA and are looking for a change, go to the Web site (, and click on the 'Check Out Our Openings' button and apply.

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If your organization has a PCI opportunity, is in need of assistance with a PCI issue or if you would like the PCI Guru to speak at your meeting, you can contact the PCI Guru at pciguru AT gmail DOT com.

I do allow vendors to post potential solutions in response to issues that I bring up in posts. However, the PCI Guru does not endorse any specific products, so "Caveat Emptor" - let the buyer beware. Also, if I feel that the response is too "sales-ee", I reserve the right to edit or not even authorize the response.


November 2015
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