Rich and I are kicking off a short series called “Data Encryption 101: A Pragmatic Approach for PCI Compliance”. As the name implies, our goal is to provide actionable advice for PCI compliance as it relates to encrypted data storage. We write a lot about PCI because we get plenty of end-user questions on the subject. Every PCI research project we produce talks specifically about the need to protect credit cards, but we have never before dug into the details of how. This really hit home during the tokenization series – even when you are trying to get rid of credit cards you still need to encrypt data in the token server, but choosing the best way to employ encryption is varies depending upon the users environment and application processing needs. It’s not like we can point a merchant to the PCI specification and say “Do that”. There is no practical advice in the Data Security Standard for protecting PAN data, and I think some of the acceptable ‘approaches’ are, honestly, a waste of time and effort.

PCI says you need to render stored Primary Account Number (at a minimum) unreadable. That’s clear. The specification points to a number of methods they feel are appropriate (hashing, encryption, truncation), emphasizes the need for “strong” cryptography, and raises some operational issues with key storage and disk/database encryption. And that’s where things fall apart – the technology, deployment models, and supporting systems offer hundreds of variations and many of them are inappropriate in any situation. These nuggets of information are little more than reference points in a game of “connect the dots”, without an orderly sequence or a good understanding of the picture you are supposedly drawing. Here are some specific ambiguities and misdirections in the PCI standard:

  • Hashing: Hashing is not encryption, and not a great way to protect credit cards. Sure, hashed values can be fairly secure and they are allowed by the PCI DSS specification, but they don’t solve a business problem. Why would you hash rather than encrypting? If you need access to credit card data badly enough to store it in the first place hashing us a non-starter because you cannot get the original data back. If you don’t need the original numbers at all, replace them with encrypted or random numbers. If you are going to the trouble of storing the credit card number you will want encryption – it is reversible, resistant to dictionary attacks, and more secure.
  • Strong Cryptography: Have you ever seen a vendor advertise weak cryptography? I didn’t think so. Vendors tout strong crypto, and the PCI specification mentions it for a reason: once upon a time there was an issue with vendors developing “custom” obfuscation techniques that were easily broken, or totally screwing up the implementation of otherwise effective ciphers. This problem is exceptionally rare today. The PCI mention of strong cryptography is simply a red herring. Vendors will happily discuss their sooper-strong crypto and how they provide compliant algorithms, but this is a distraction from the selection process. You should not be spending more than a few minutes worrying about the relative strength of encryption ciphers, or the merits of 128 vs. 256 bit keys. PCI provides a list of approved ciphers, and the commercial vendors have done a good job with their implementations. The details are irrelevant to end users.
  • Disk Encryption: The PCI specification mentions disk encryption in a matter-of-fact way that implies it’s an acceptable implementations for concealing stored PAN data. There are several forms of “disk encryption”, just as there are several forms of “database encryption”. Some variants work well for securing media, but offer no meaningful increase in data security for PCI purposes. Encrypted SAN/NAS is one example of disk encryption that is wholly unsuitable, as requests from the OS and applications automatically receive unencrypted data. Sure, the data is protected in case someone attempts to cart off your storage array, but that’s not what you need to protect against.
  • Key Management: There is a lot of confusion around key management; how do you verify keys are properly stored? What does it mean that decryption keys should not be tied to accounts, especially since keys are commonly embedded within applications? What are the tradeoffs of central key management? These are principal business concerns that get no coverage in the specification, but critical to the selection process for security and cost containment.

Most compliance regulations must balance between description vs. prescription for controls, in order to tell people clearly what they need to do without telling them how it must be done. Standards should describe what needs to be accomplished without being so specific that they forbid effective technologies and methods. The PCI Data Security Standard is not particularly successful at striking this balance, so our goal for this series is to cut through some of these confusing issues, making specific recommendations for what technologies are effective and how you should approach the decision-making process.

Unlike most of our Understanding and Selecting series on security topics, this will be a short series of posts, very focused on meeting PCI’s data storage requirement. In our next post we will create a strategic outline for securing stored payment data and discuss suitable encryption tools that address common customer use cases. We’ll follow up with a discussion of key management and supporting infrastructure considerations, then finally a list of criteria to consider when evaluating and purchasing data encryption solutions.