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PCI in the cloud: Segmentation, security compliance is possible, experts say

Robert Westervelt, News Director

Merchants interested in outsourcing their payment processes or looking to reduce internal architecture complexities have been turning to cloud providers, but experts caution that no matter where the credit card data resides, the merchant ultimately is fully responsible for safeguarding the information and

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maintaining cloud PCI DSS compliance.

The PCI Security Standards Council has made it clear in its virtualization guidance document that turning over payment processes to cloud service providers can result in a reduction in PCI scope. While there are benefits, there are also important caveats that should be heeded when reaching out to a provider, experts say.   

Compliance is based on the service being delivered, said Michael Dahn, director of threat and vulnerability management at PricewaterhouseCoopers.The merchant has to know the responsibilities of the cloud service provider and understand who is doing the maintenance, monitoring and other security processes protecting the data, he said.

“You may approach a vendor that offers cloud services and they may have been validated as a PCI-compliant provider, but putting your payment systems in their environment does not make you compliant,” Dahn said.

Cloud computing platforms such as Amazon Web Services and Verizon’s Computing as a Service (CaaS) have been validated as PCI DSS compliant, meaning their internal systems have been validated by an independent Quality Security Assessor. Both providers make it clear that the merchant will be responsible for securing data stored and maintained on those platforms. 

It’s important for security professionals to understand that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to PCI compliance in the cloud, Dahn said. Organizations that choose to outsource their payment systems are both large and small. Their risk tolerances vary and often the size and maturity of the merchants using a cloud provider are also mixed. Among the similarities is the use of point-to-point encryption and tokenization technologies to ensure security within the cloud environment. Tokenization is also growing in popularity because merchants can completely wipe sensitive credit card data from systems, but maintain business analytics.

In a tip on PCI compliance in the cloud, Ed Moyle, a senior security strategist at Savvis and founding partner of consultancy Security Curve, said merchants can take steps early on to avoid potential pitfalls. PCI DSS compliance and cloud computing doesn’t have to be a scary proposition, Moyle said. 

It’s vital that the merchant understands what will be moving to the cloud and gain a better picture of what the scope will look like. It is easier from a governance standpoint if the merchant maintains direct control of the cardholder environment, he said.  

Chenxi Wang, vice president and principle analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc., said she does not believe there are any major issues that haven’t been addressed by the PCI Council. Recent guidance on virtualization and point-to-point encryption have helped most merchants better understand and address the challenges. 

Cloud providers gaining PCI DSS compliantvalidationis also helping reduce some of the confusion with gaining compliance in the cloud, Wang said.  The cloud provider’s job is to provide documentation on how they meet important security controls, Wang said. In addition to Amazon Web Services and Verizon, Web content giant Akamai runs a PCI DSS validated tokenization service. Visa provides a list of dozens of PCI-validated service providers(.pdf).

“There are many merchants that have been using cloud services for their payment processes for a long time,” Wang said. “While merchants are ultimately responsible, there’s shared responsibility with the cloud provider.”

 


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