PCI regime has bred complacent tick-box security among retailers, Tripwire survey finds

Uncovers widespread confidence in the face of evidence

Retail and financial services organisations have become over-reliant on high-level compliance regimes such as PCI DSS to shore up their networks against data breaches, a survey of 400 UK and US organisations by security firm Tripwire has suggested.

Given the record number of public data breach notifications in the retail sector in the last year, the confidence expressed by many of the 407 retail and financial organisations that took part in the survey sounds paradoxical.

A surprising 84 percent believed they would detect a data breach within three days despite third-party reports (Verizon, Mandiant) based on real-world incidents suggesting a figure closer to weeks or months.

Organisations were upbeat about their ability to detect rogue malware (such as the point-of-sale malware that has plagued the retail sector), with an identical 84 percent confident or very confident about spotting such incursions. Nearly two thirds were confident they would spot unauthorised access to a network share or resource.

When asked to rate confidence in incident response plans in the light of what happened to US retailer Target, confidence levels dropped a bit but were still above 60 percent.

According to Tripwire, the fact that three quarters described PCI DSS as accounting for all or most of their security program was significant.

"Taken as a whole, these results indicate that most payment card processors need to engage in a standard of care discussion for their security programs," said Tripwire CTO, Dwayne Melanon.

"While most respondents feel confident about their security investments, it's not clear whether they are questioning the basis of that confidence."

Surveys are contentious territory, often used by security vendors to demonstrate fear uncertainty and doubt as a way of legitimising the need for a particular technology. In this case, the opposite appears to be the case; Tripwire's survey suggests a degree of complacency rather than technical failure.

It's not absolutely clear that PCI is the sole root of this but as the most significant compliance regime facing retailers and financial firms handling credit card data, its is certainly a suspect.

According to Tripwire, the danger of any compliance regime is that it leads to tick box security and becomes a psychological crutch. It says little about how well an organisation has tested security controls or modelled attacks.

So PCI is making people feel more confident than they should feel. PCI is also about defending one type of data, credit card data, and building controls around that defensive line. A lot of other data falls outside its remit.

"Having a structured program in place that's objectively measured by a third party is a definite improvement over more loosely defined programs that are evaluated only by internal personnel," added Tripwire's director of IT security and risk strategy, Tim Erlin.

"However, many organizations fail to realize that the goal of PCI compliance is the protection of cardholder data. It does not protect the rest of your business."

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