Jun 26 2009   2:03PM GMT

The Tangled Ethics of the Payment Card Industry DSS

Arian Eigen Heald Arian Eigen Heald Profile: Arian Eigen Heald

I just finished reading an absolutely terrific article from a sister auditor who is now on my short-list of must-reads. She’s got a great name (Gunn) and a killer sense of humor (sorry, I could NOT resist).

“Why Suing Auditors Won’t Solve the Problem”
is worth a read for her point of view on what it’s really like in Audit-Land.

A bank that was impacted by a data breach at a merchant is suing the QSA firm that performed the PCI exam and signed off that the merchant was compliant. They want to recoup the money they lost from replacing all the credit cards to their customers and dealing with related fraud from the breach.

Her point of view presents the difficulties auditors have in providing reports and doing exams, as well as the foibles of various firms.

It’s a painful, but absolutely true description of how clients can respond to auditors when they don’t get the exam results they like – “Throw the bums out, and hire better (meaning cheaper AND more cooperative) ones!” As well as pushing a report documenting problems to the circular file.

What is equally painful is that there are certainly “security auditors” out there who are more than willing to do the “check box” report, collect their check, and hit the door. They are usually the cheapest bidder, by the way.

She makes an interesting point about PCI auditors, however. In order to be compliant, merchants can either do one of three options: their own report, or hire auditors to do a report they can sign off on, or hire an independent, licensed QSA firm to provide an independent report, on their behalf, to their acquiring bank, which until recently did not have to forward the report to the Credit Card Consortium.

Consider that the QSA firm is required to have liability insurance, pay a hefty yearly fee to the Consortium and provide an independent assessment. This requires a firm with pretty deep pockets (a juicy candidate for a lawsuit) and a good skillset of people. Staff of a QSA firm must have at least 10 years of experience and a CISSP running the assessment. As a result, the number of QSA firms is limited to large audit/accounting firms and security companies.

The challenge is that the client they are assessing is also paying their bill. And most of the security companies doing PCI exams also sell security products. Two fundamental conflicts with true independence, don’t you think?

Most merchants tend to do the internal self-exam, where they can manage their own report or hire a firm to do the report they can then sign off on. This means they may hire firms that do not have the same level of experience to get the job done more cheaply. See Eigen’s Rules of Thumb numbers 1 and 6.

The second challenge is that merchants can change the configuration that was tested a week after the QSA firm issues a report.

Perhaps the most fundamental issue is the public’s expectation that PCI compliance = a secure architecture that protects their information. Given that a large percentage of merchants are only partially compliant (meaning that they have met some, but not all, of the requirements and have a plan in place to be compliant at some point soon, i.e., TJMaxx, and we can see how that worked) and most merchants are doing the internal exam, there is generally a recipe for chaos.

Acquiring Banks, of course (meaning those banks who have acquired, and are supposed to manage merchant accounts) are placed in the role of security monitor by the Credit Card Consortium. They also levy fines (the ones handed down by the CCC) and set timeline requirements for PCI compliance.
Can they cut off a merchant who is making the Bank loads of money for not being compliant? Yes. Are they likely to? Probably not.

Consider that if a merchant is not fully compliant, their level of security is below the minimum. Would I want to give that merchant my credit card info? Probably not. The merchant would start to lose business based on that poor reputation, which is why PCI doesn’t publish a list of merchants who are fully compliant.

Confused yet? Me, too. Use cash and checks. Preferably cash.

So what is a poor admin to do? Focus on securing the systems under your purview and documenting your efforts. If you’re doing the job you know you should be doing, sooner or later, when the auditors show up at your door, your efforts will be validated and you can sleep at night.

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