Thursday, February 4, 2010

PCI DSS Releases FAQ about End to End Encryption

While major updates to the PCI Data Security Standard get issues with new versions, such as the one to be published later this year, the PCI Security Standards Council often releases FAQ’s that provide clarification or guidance to merchants and QSA’s. In December, the PCI SSC published an FAQ dealing with the impact of end to end encryption on PCI Scope. While couched in several disclaimers, the highlighted section below says that encrypted data can be considered out of scope if the retailer does not have the means to decrypt the data. This is a huge win for retailers looking to implement end to end encryption technology both to improve the security of cardholder data in their environment as well as reduce their on-going PCI compliance and assessment costs.

As when implementing any new payment architecture or technology, you should consult with your QSA during the evaluation, planning and implementation processes to maximize the benefits you receive when implementing a new payment architecture or technology like end to end encryption.

Is encrypted cardholder data considered cardholder data that must be protected in accordance with PCI DSS?
The Council will be developing more formal guidance around this topic, leveraging information that is received through the various channels of the DSS lifecycle feedback process. Until further guidance is provided by the Council, the following should be taken into consideration regarding encrypted cardholder data.

Encryption solutions are only as good as the industry-approved algorithms and key management practices used, including security controls surrounding the encryption/decryption keys (“Keys”). If Keys are left unprotected and accessible, anyone can decrypt the data. The DSS has specific encryption key management controls (DSS 3.5 and 3.6), however, other DSS controls such as firewalls, user access controls, vulnerability management, scanning, logging and application security provide additional layers of security to prevent malicious users from gaining privileged access to networks or cardholder data environments that may grant them access to Keys. It is for this reason that encrypted cardholder data is in scope for PCI DSS.

However, encrypted data may be deemed out of scope if, and only if, it has been validated that the entity that possesses encrypted cardholder data does not have the means to decrypt it. Any technological implementation or vendor solution should be validated to ensure both physical and logical controls are in place in accordance with industry best practices, prohibiting the entity, or malicious users that may gain access to the entity’s environment, from obtaining access to Keys.

Furthermore, service providers or vendors that provide encryption solutions to merchants who have administrative access and controls to Keys along with the management of termination points for encryption to process transactions, are required to demonstrate physical and logical controls to protect cryptographic keys in accordance with industry best practices (such as NIST referenced in PCI DSS requirement 3.6), along with full compliance with PCI DSS.

Merchants should ensure their solution providers who provide key management services and/or act as the point of encryption/decryption are in compliance with PCI DSS. Merchants should be aware that encryption solutions most likely do not remove them completely from PCI DSS. Examples of where DSS would still be applicable include usage policies, agreements with service providers that deploy payment solutions, physical protection of payment assets and any legacy data and processes (such as billing, loyalty, marketing databases) within the merchant's environment that may still store, process or transmit clear text cardholder data, as that would remain in scope for PCI DSS.

The full PCI SSC FAQ’s can be found here. Click on the FAQ link in the left navigation bar. This specific FAQ can be found here.