A couple months ago Akamai announced Edge Tokenization, a service to tokenize credit card numbers for online payments. The technology is not Akamai’s – it belongs to CyberSource, a Visa-owned payment processing company. I have been holding off on this post for a couple months in order to get a full briefing from CyberSource, but that is not currently happening, and this application of tokenization technology is worth talking about, so it’s time to forge ahead. I preface this by stating that I don’t write much about specific vendor announcements – I prefer to comment on trends within a specific industry. That’s largely because most product announcements are about smaller iterative improvements or full-blown puffy marketing doublespeak. To avoid being accused of being in somebody’s pocket, I avoid product announcements, except the rare cases that are important enough to demand discussion. A new deployment model for payment processing and tokenization qualifies.

So what the heck is edge tokenization? Just what it sounds like: tokenization embedded in Akamai’s distributed edge platform. As we defined in our series on tokenization a few months ago, edge tokenization is functionally exactly the same as any other token server. It substitutes sensitive credit card/PAN data with a token as a reference to the original value. What’s different in this model is that it’s basically offloading the payment service to the Akamai infrastructure, which intercepts the credit card number before the merchant can receive it. The PAN and the rest of the payment data are passed to one of several payment gateways. At least theoretically it is – I have not verified which processors or how they are selected. CyberSource software issues the tokens during Akamai’s payment transaction with the buyer, and sends the token to the merchant as confirmation of approved payment.

One of the challenges of tokenization is to enable the merchant to have full control over the user experience – whether point-of-sale or web – while removing their systems from the scope of a PCI audit. But from a security standpoint, removing the merchant is ideal. Edge tokenization allows the merchant to have control over the on-line shopping experience, but be completely out of the picture when handling the credit card. Without more information I cannot tell whether the merchant it is more or less removed from the sensitive aspects than with any other token service, but it looks like fewer merchant systems should be exposed. No service is ever simply ‘drop-in’, despite vendor assurances, so there will be some integration work to perform. But from Akamai’s descriptions it looks like the adaptations are no different than what you would do to accept tokens directly. This is one of several reasons I want to drill into the technology, but that will have to wait until I get more information from CyberSource.

This announcement is important because it’s one of the few tokenization models that completely removes the merchant from processing the credit card. They only get a token on the back end for a transactional reference, and Akamai’s service takes care of clearing the payment and any needed remediation. Depending on how the integration is performed, this form of tokenization should also reduce PCI scope (just like those from NuBridges, Protegrity, RSA, and Voltage). Additionally, it’s build into the web infrastructure, instead of the merchant site. This gives merchants another option in case they are unhappy with the price, performance, or integration requirements of their existing payment processor’s tokenization offering (or lack thereof). And you would be surprised how often tokenization latency is the number one concern of merchants – rather than security. Imagine that! Finally, the architecture is inherently scalable, suitable for firms with multiple sites, and compatible with disaster recovery and failover. From what I understand, as tokens are single-use random numbers created on a per-merchant basis, so token generation should be very simple and fast.

I do have a bit of an ethical dilema talking about this service, as Visa owns CyberSource. Creating a security standard for merchants to comply with, and then selling them a service to make them compliant, seems a bit dodgy to me. Sure, it’s great revenue if you can get it, but merchants are paying Visa – indirectly – to handle Visa’s risk, under Visa’s terms. This is our common refrain about PCI here at Securosis. But I guess this is the way things go. Trustwave’s offering tools to solve PCI checklist items that Trustwave QSAs review are not too different, and the PCI Council does not seem to consider that a conflict of interest. I doubt CyberSource’s Visa connection will raise concern either. In the big picture the goal is to have better security in order to reduce fraud, and for merchants it’s less risk and less cost – edge tokenization does both.

I’ll update this post as I learn more.