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Compliance does not equal security

Mathias Thurman | Jan. 13, 2016
The effort to meet Level 1 PCI compliance reveals a new security mantra to our manager.

credit cards 2
Credit: Picserver, CC BY-SA 3.0

A security manager needs a philosophy about how to address security issues, and I find that many elements of mine can be reduced to a few words that almost amount to mantras: “Obey the rule of least privilege,” “A company is only as strong as its weakest link,” “Security is a process, not a point solution” and “Trust but verify.”

This week I added a new mantra: “Compliance does not equal security.”

Trouble Ticket

At issue: The company has to meet the requirements for a tougher certification of its credit card-handling practices. But at the end of the day, those requirements don’t seem tough enough.

Action plan: Obtain the budget and resources to go beyond compliance toward true security.

This truth has come home to me over the past several months as we have worked to obtain Level 1 PCI compliance. This effort is quite different from achieving other PCI levels, which merely required completing a self-assessment questionnaire and passing quarterly security scans. Instead, we must provide excruciating amounts of evidence to a third-party qualified assessor.

The process is exhausting, with more than 400 controls, many of which require the submission of evidence. For example, it isn’t enough to simply check the box stating, “I encrypt credit cards at rest.” Evidence must be submitted proving that the data is really encrypted. In the case of encryption at rest, we simply provide a screenshot of the encrypted value in the database or file system. To prove encryption in transit, we have to show a sample of network traffic (for instance, from a sniffer) that demonstrates that data is truly encrypted.

And yet, despite the tremendous effort to meet the compliance requirements, I have learned that compliance does not equal security. I will explain how I came to realize this.

One of the requirements is that companies must prove that they are logging certain activities and regularly reviewing the logs. Some companies will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars deploying state-of-the-art security incident event management infrastructure and hiring a team of security analysts to provide 24/7 monitoring. Others may hire a third party and offload the collection, correlation and analysis of events on a 24/7 basis. Such round-the-clock coverage is ideal for detecting indicators of compromise, because hacking activity can occur at any hour of the day, but my company can’t meet that standard. What we do is to log all events and use scripts to search for a few suspicious types of log entries — and if we don’t have a script for a particular type of suspicious log entry, we won’t see it. If an event is flagged, an email is sent to a distribution list, which we monitor every day, but not 24/7. I know — it’s a pathetic situation, and I plan to change it. But the thing is that our pathetic, patchwork monitoring passes PCI. That doesn’t mean, though, that it properly protects our organization. Compliance does not equal security.


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