The Virtualization Room

Nov 7 2008   1:18PM GMT

PCI Data Security Standard updated, but still does not address virtualization

Eric Siebert Eric Siebert Profile: Eric Siebert

Last week I noticed that the Payment Card Industry’s Data Security Standard (PCI-DSS) was recently updated on October 1, 2008, from version 1.1 to 1.2. PCI-DSS is a security standard set forth by a conglomerate of all the major credit card companies and is designed to protect cardholder data. As a result, any company that accepts credit cards is forced to comply with it.

About six months ago I wrote that the PCI-DSS standard did not specifically address virtual environments, and instead only focused on servers and networks that are directly involved with cardholder data. In other words, the specification dictates what must be done to secure a server that may store or process cardholder data, but if that server happened to be a virtual guest the host server would not be considered in the scope of the specification. Subsequently you could secure a virtual guest all you want, but if you do not properly secure the host server you could easily compromise the virtual guest regardless of how it was secured.

I downloaded the summary of changes document that specified all of the changes that were made from version 1.1 and 1.2, anxious to see if they had finally added parameters for virtual host servers. Out of the 14 pages of changes, there was still no mention of virtualization technologies in the specification. Surprised by this, I searched through the whole version 1.2, 72-page specification document for the word virtual and found only one instance of it for virtual private network.

I am puzzled as to why they would continue to ignore virtualization. After all, isn’t just about every company virtualizing in some fashion these days? Are the people that write the specification parameters just ignorant of what virtualization is, and that it has a direct impact on their regulations? Or are they just trusting that we are all securing our virtual hosts properly and there is no need to address them? If that’s the case then they have misplaced a critical amount of trust as I am sure there are a great many virtual environments that are not properly secured. Likewise, ignoring virtualization completely greatly reduces the effectiveness of their efforts to secure environments that deal with cardholder data. It’s essentially fortifying everything within a castle, but leaving the front gate open.

It wouldn’t require a great deal of effort for them to address virtual hosts. A number of security specifications for virtual hosts already exist, such as’s for VMware’s ESX. Let’s hope that they wise up and address virtualization in their next update of the specification. Until then their efforts to protect cardholders are not complete. I just hope that my credit card data is not lying on a virtual machine somewhere that resides on an insecure host server that is ripe for the picking. After all, why try and hack a single virtual machine when you can instead hack into a whole host and gain access to all the VMs and their data?

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