PCI group outlines technology to conceal sensitive account information

The Payment Card Industry Security Standards Council today published guidelines aimed at helping merchants and others processing payment cards make effective use of what's known as "tokenization" technologies to conceal sensitive account information.

In its "Information Supplement: PCI DSS Tokenization Guidelines," the council points out that there are various types of token products on the market today, and though not naming them, offers a description of how many might be expected to work to hide payment-card account information by concealing it behind a substitute "token" as a surrogate value. The "token" could then be converted back to its original account information.

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The council says this technology can potentially help in making it easier for merchants or other processing payment card data to set up networks that must restrict access to sensitive information in order to comply with the PCI Data Security Standard (DSS) rules.

Tokenization itself has no specific de jour standards and there are products that work in rather different ways. But by effectively hiding data in plain sight, tokenization can be a factor taken into account when merchant networks are reviewed for compliance with PCI standards, says Troy Leach, chief technology officer at the PCI Security Standards Council.

"The security of an individual token relies predominantly on the infeasibility of determining the original primary account number," the report states. It goes on to recommend best practices for tokenization. Some of these include:

* Strong authentication and access controls must exist for all access to the tokenization system, whether for tokenizing or de-tokenizing data, and authentication credentials must be secured from unauthorized access or use.

* All components within the tokenization system (for example, the token generation and mapping process, data vault and cryptographic key management) must be located in a PCI DSS compliant environment.

Since the goal in PCI compliance is often to reduce the amount of cardholder data that enters the general business network, the report notes that if the primary account number (PAN) is retrievable by the merchant using the tokenization system in place, the "merchant's environment will be in scope for PCI DSS." To minimize that, it would be preferred that the merchant "would not need or have the ability to retrieve the PAN once the token has been generated."

The report offers detail on how tokenization systems should be installed, configured and maintained in a manner that is PCI DSS compliant in general. For instance, one guideline suggests, "The tokenization solution implements logging, monitoring, and alerting as appropriate to identify any suspicious activity and initiate response procedures."

The document was a project carried out by the council's Scoping Special Interest Group, Tokenization Taskforce.

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