PCI Evils

“PCI compliance”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PCI_DSS is a good idea. In theory. At my job we’re adopting all these standards to make all our users’ experiences better, which is really a great thing. But just like every other “good idea in theory”, this one is being abused in horribly stupid ways.

As a professional web programmer who actually cares about keeping my job, I do spend the time to learn little tidbits about security from time to time. And on our team, we have a pretty effective security specialist who makes sure things like “XSS”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crosssitescripting and “SQL Injection”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SQL_injection aren’t going to bring down our rather important e-commerce sites. I’m not even half as knowledgeable as this guy, but I still consider myself a proficient web security person. So to me, being treated like I don’t even know the definition of “security” can be a bit frustrating.

Recently we had a required meeting for PCI compliance. It was not something anybody could get out of, not even our security specialist who regularly attends security conferences. Okay, right, people need to know about security issues. Fine, we’ll all go to Security 101 and be able to have a quick laugh, right?

Yeah, more like a long and somehow excruciatingly-painful laugh. We learned the following things, no joke: * Do not store passwords on a piece of paper under your desk. * Do not hold the locked doors open for people who clearly don’t belong in the building. * If you lose a laptop that contains customer data, such as credit card numbers, report it to a manager. (I don’t know what the other options for this situation could even BE… pretend you still have said laptop by building one out of cardboard boxes?) * If you see a total stranger sitting at somebody’s desk whom you know is not that total stranger, you should report it.

There were other points to learn. Something about “report any anomaly that isn’t normally there” (isn’t that kind of the definition of anomaly?), though that’s not stupid advice as much as a funny way to word the stupid advice.

Then there’s the “don’t ask don’t tell” security policies. One of the speakers talked about how he had to fire a guy who was using some cracking software to test the strength of user passwords. Because, you know, he was using EVIL HACKER SOFTWARE, by golly! The speaker actually said, “He was using software to test the strength of passwords, and while he claimed it was a security test, that’s something hackers do.” Don’t get me wrong, maybe the dude was a malicious hacker (yes, not all “hackers” are malicious), but I’d have liked to hear why our illustrious consultant friend was so sure of this guy’s evil-doing ways…. I had a recent experience that was similar, so the subject is a bit of a sore spot. There was no firing, but I was “talked to” by an exec for having tested and then written up a report to my managers when I discovered some security problems. I guess I made the mistake of actually verifying that my hunch was correct – verification required me to H4X0R other people’s accounts (with their consent, mind you).

Back on topic… so not only was this class totally below everybody in my department, but the only lesson I learned was that you never, ever, point out security flaws that look too technical in nature, otherwise you’re a suspected hacker. Awesome message, PCI consultants! I salute you!

I guess what I’m saying here is that PCI compliance is a great thing when it comes to the big picture – store credit card data safely, don’t store the CVC data at all (the little 3-5 digit number on the back of your card), never send unencrypted customer data anywhere, etc. But once you bring consultants into the mix, every good idea turns to shit.

I’m starting to think that lawyers spawned technology consultants….

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