In the introductory post of the Data Encryption for PCI series, there were a lot of good comments on the value of hashing functions. I wanted to thank the readers for participating and raising several good points. Yes, hashing is a good way to match a credit card number you currently have determine if it matches one you have already been provided – without huge amounts of overhead. You might even call it a token. For the purpose of this series, as we have already covered tokenization, I will remain focused on use cases where I need to keep the original credit card data.

When it comes to secure data storage, encryption is the most effective tool at our disposal. It safeguards data at rest and improves our control over access. The PCI Data Security Standrad specifies you need to render the Primary Account Number (what the card associations call credit card numbers) unreadable anywhere it is stored. Yes, we can hash, or we can truncate, or we can tokenize, or employ other forms of non-reversible obfuscation. But we need to keep the original data, and occasionally access it, so the real question is how? There are at least a dozen different variations on file encryption, database encryption and encryption at the application layer. The following is a description of the available encryption methods at your disposal, and a discussion of the pros & cons of each. We’ll wrap the series by applying these methods to the common use cases and make recommendations, but for now we are just presenting options.

What You Need to Know About Strong Ciphers

In layman’s terms, a strong cipher is one you can’t break. That means if you try to reverse the encryption process by guessing the decryption key – even if you used every computer you could get your hands on to help guess – you would not guess correctly during your life time. Or many lifetimes. The sun may implode before you guess correctly, which is why we are not so picky when choosing one cipher over another. There are lots that are considered ‘strong’ by PCI standards organization, and they provide a list for you in the PCI DSS Glossary of Terms. Tripe-DES, AES, Blowfish, Twofish, ElGamal and RSA are all acceptable options.

Secret key ciphers (e.g. AES) use a minimum key length of 128 bits, and public key algorithms (those then encrypt with a public key and decrypt with a private key) require a minimum of 1024 bit. All of the commercial encryption vendors offer these, at a minimum, plus longer key lengths as an option. You can choose longer keys if you wish, but in practical terms they don’t add much more security, and in rare cases they offer less. Yet another reason to not fuss over the cipher or key length too much.

When you boil it down, the cipher and key length is far less important than the deployment model. How you use encryption in your environment is the dominant factor for security, cost and performance, and that’s what we’ll focus on for the remainder of this section.

Encryption Deployment Options

Merchant credit card processing systems can be as simple as a website site plug-in, or they may be a geographically disperse set data processing systems with hundreds of machines performing dozens of business functions. Regardless of size and complexity, these systems store credit card information in files or databases. It’s one or the other. And the data can be encrypted before it is stored (application layer), or when it is stored (file, database).

  • Database Encryption: The most common storage repository for credit card numbers. All relational databases offer encryption, usually as an add-on package. Most databases offer both very granular encryption methods (e.g. only on a specific row or column) as well as an entire schema/database. The encryption functions can be invoked programmatically through a procedural interface, requiring changes to the database query that instruct the database to encrypt/decrypt. The database automatically alters the table structure to store the binary output of the cipher. More commonly we see databases configured for Transparent encryption – where encryption is applied automatically to data before it is stored. In this model all encryption and key management happens behind the scenes without the users knowledge. Because databases stores redundant copies of information in recovery and audit logs, full database encryption is a popular choice for PCI to keep PAN data from accidentally being revealed.
  • File/Folder Encryption: Some applications, such as desktop productivity applications and some web applications, store credit card data within flat files. Encryption is applied transparently by the operating system as files or folders are written to disk. This type of encryption is offered as a 3rd party add-on, or comes embedded within the operating system. File/Folder encryption can be applied to database files and directories, so that the database contents are encrypted without any changes to the application or database. It’s up to the local administrator to properly apply encryption to the right file/folder otherwise PAN data may be exposed.
  • Application Layer Encryption: Applications that process credit cards can encrypt data prior to storage. Be it file or relational database storage, the application encrypts data before it is saved, and decrypts before data is displayed. Supporting cryptographic libraries can be linked into the application, or provided by a 3rd party package. The programmer has great flexibility in how to apply encryption, and more importantly, can choose to decrypt on application context, not just user credentials. While all these operations are transparent to the application user, it’s not Transparent encryption because the application – and usually the supporting database – must be modified. Use of format-preserving encryption (FPE) variations of AES are available, which removes the need to alter database or file structure to store cipher-text, but does not perform as well as normal AES cipher.

All of these options protect stored information in the event of lost or stolen media. All of these options need to use external key management services to secure keys and provide basic segregation of duties. We will go into much greater detail how best to use each of these deployment models when we examine the use cases and selection criteria.

Procedural vs. Transparent Encryption

A quick note on Transparent Encryption as it has become an attractive choice for quickly getting stored credit card data encrypted. Traditionally encryption was performed manually. If you wanted a file or a database encrypted, it was up to the user to write a program that called the procedure or encryption interface (API) to encrypt or decrypt. Some of the databases and operating systems have add-on features that will automatically encrypt data prior to the file/database data being written to disk. This is called Transparent Encryption. While procedural encryption offered fine grain of control and good separation of duties, it can be labor intensive to implement in legacy systems. Transparent encryption requires no changes to the application or database code so it is very easy to implement. However, since decryption occurs automatically for authorized accounts, the security is no better than the account password. The principle use case for transparent encryption is for keeping media (e.g. backup tapes) safe, but in some cases it can be appropriate for PCI as well.