PCI security standard remains solid, chief says

Breaches at Target highlight need for multi-layered security effort, Bob Russo says.

The head of the organization in charge of maintaining security controls over credit card transactions insisted Monday that its standards remain solid despite the concerns raised by data breaches at Target and other companies.

Speaking with Computerworld, Bob Russo, general manager of the PCI Security Standards Council, downplayed criticisms about the effectiveness of the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) and said it remains a vital part of the multi-layered approach needed to secure payment card data.

"Any time there's a breach it sheds a spotlight on what we do," Russo said. But instead of pointing fingers at PCI, there should be more focus on working collaboratively to address security issues in the payment card industry, he said.

"Everybody is looking for a silver bullet," in the wake of the recent breaches, said Russo, who is scheduled to testify before Congress pn Wednesday on the issue. "As far as I know, no silver bullet exists. It's a combination of people, process and technology."

The PCI Council and the PCI standard in general have come under scrutiny in the past few weeks following the data breaches at Target, Neiman Marcus and several other retailers.

All organizations that accept credit and debit card transactions are required to implement the security controls prescribed under PCI. Companies, especially major retailers like Target, have spent billions of dollars over the past several years implementing PCI requirements and billions more in mandatory third-party compliance assessments.

Yet compliance with the standard has been no guarantee against data breaches, prompting some to question whether the problem lies in the standard itself, or the manner in which it is implemented and assessed.

According to Russo, a company that implements all required PCI controls should be well-protected against data breaches. The standard not only prescribes controls for blocking security intrusions but also for detecting them in the event that an intrusion occurs, he said.

Companies have often complained that they suffered a data breach even though they were fully certified as being compliant at the time of the breach. In reality, though, with every major payment card data breach in the past, companies were not PCI compliant when the breach happened, Russo said.

Though a company might be certified as PCI compliant, it's important to remember the compliance certification is just a snapshot in time, he noted.

"You can be in compliance today and be totally out of compliance tomorrow," because of a failure to implement some required small security measure, he said. "This is really about security. Not about compliance. These are the bare minimum things you should be doing."

Russo said the PCI Security Council is open to making changes to the standards if they are identified as necessary. For instance, the council is reviewing its recommendations around data encryption, he said.

Currently, the PCI standard only requires encryption for data at rest, but not while the data is in transit along the transaction chain. The council recommends that retailers and others in the payment industry adopt a more comprehensive point-to-point encryption approach, although it is not a requirement.

According to Russo, point-to-point encryption is one of the issues the council will look at in the coming months. The council is also looking at approaches like tokenization for protecting cardholder data, he said. With tokenization, card data is substituted with a random string of numbers so even if the data is compromised, it holds no value for data thieves.

Broad adoption of the Europay MasterCard Visa (EMV) smartcard standard could also enhance debit and credit card security, Russo said.

The recent breaches have fueled fresh calls for adoption of the standard in the U.S., which remains the only major country in the world not to have moved to it already. Visa and MasterCard have both said they will move over to EMV by the end of next year.

But as with every other aspect of payment card security, the EMV standard is just one piece, Russo said. Though EMV is widely touted as being better than magnetic card technology, it would not have prevented the Target data compromise, he said. It would have only limited, but not stopped, how the stolen cards could be used, he said.

One area where the council has received feedback from stakeholders is on the consistency of the PCI compliance assessment process, Russo said. In response, the council enhanced testing to ensure that assessments are done in a more consistent and standardized manner.

"Additionally, throughout the standards, we've built in more education around the intent of the requirements so that those implementing the standards in their organization have more information regarding the goal of the controls and how they need to be implemented," he said.

This article, PCI security standard remains solid, chief says, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed. His e-mail address is jvijayan@computerworld.com.

See more by Jaikumar Vijayan on Computerworld.com.

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