Honor Thy Customers' Cards

FRAMINGHAM (04/10/2000) - In January alone, a half-dozen electronic businesses lost credit-card data to thieves. And just last month, SalesGate, which operates an e-commerce billing system for small online merchants, saw more than 3,000 customers' credit-card numbers posted on the Web.

Amazingly, the crackers used widely available scripts to manipulate the operating systems to gain root or administrative access to the systems and download plain-text credit-card information.

At SalesGate, the attackers exploited a known vulnerability in Microsoft Corp.'s Internet Information Server.

Chris Keller, founder and secretary to the board of Buffalo, New York-based Internet Management Services Inc., SalesGate's parent company, wouldn't divulge details but said the attack occurred just after a system upgrade.

"We were keeping credit cards in hard copy in books only. And any other customer information on the server should have been encrypted," he said. "But then we restored our Web server, and this particular credit-card information had been previously coded into that Web server by a prior administrator."

The best security practice is to not store credit-card information on any Web-connected machine, said Ian Poynter, president of security consulting firm Jerboa Inc. in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

This, of course, is impossible for busy sites whose customers want their credit cards stored for reuse or for sites that conduct their own credit-card processing.

Another strong deterrent is to encrypt credit-card files and store them safely away from the Web server. But security professionals point out that transactional systems have a difficult time pulling credit cards out of encrypted files, so most organizations store credit-card data in plain text.

"You want to architect your system so that the machine storing those cards is as far removed from the Internet as possible," said Al Potter, manager of network security labs at ICSA Labs, a division of the International Computer Security Association in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

"Behind the first firewall is a Web server. Then behind the Web server, put another firewall. And behind that firewall, put a wee, bitty little [connection] to the transaction server that stays open just long enough to validate the transaction," he says.

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