Are PIN Pads Insecure By Design?

Written by Frank Hayes
August 1st, 2012

Now that Verifone has confirmed one of its popular U.K. PIN pads was hacked by a researcher for last week’s Black Hat security conference, is it time to rethink how POS devices can be maintained, managed and upgraded? It’s very convenient to do so over a network or, in the case of Chip-and-PIN devices, using special maintenance cards. But we may be at the point where that’s simply not secure.

To be clear, Verifone only acknowledged that one of three hacked PIN pads came from it. In addition, the secure electronic payment technologies vendor said it’s already testing a fix. Great—that means other PIN pad vendors have similar security issues. We just don’t know which ones.

In the demonstration on July 25, researchers from U.K.-based MWR InfoSecurity said they bought second-hand PIN pads on eBay to test and found that two of the Chip-and-PIN devices popular in the U.K. could be breached by means of specially programmed smartcards. A third device, used in the U.S., could be breached in multiple ways, including via Ethernet and mobile-network interfaces.

Technical details in the demonstration were sketchy, and the researchers taped over the identifying logos on the devices. But Verifone later owned up to one of the devices, saying it had a fix in the works, while pointing out that the attack was complex, new and only works on older devices using a specific optional software module. July was not a good month for Verifone’s PIN pad security image; three weeks ago, German security researchers demonstrated how they could hack a popular Verifone PIN pad to capture card data and PINs and play Pong.

That German attack exploited problems in the PIN pad’s network software. But in the Black Hat demonstration, the Chip-and-PIN devices could be breached just by inserting a specially programmed card that took control of the PIN pad.

That shouldn’t be possible. Only data associated with a transaction—well-defined messages between the card and the device—should be going back-and-forth. A bad message should result in a rejected transaction. It’s supposed to be a smarter, and thus more secure, version of a magstripe swipe. (And yes, there’s a real irony in the fact that a magstripe swipe would never be able to take over an unmodified PIN pad this way—it takes EMV to make that possible.)

But obviously, it did happen. The researchers blamed it on a problem with the payments application in the PIN pad, but they may just be being kind. This could well be a designed-in security hole.


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Most Recent Comments

Why Did Gonzales Hackers Like European Cards So Much Better?

I am still unclear about the core point here-- why higher value of European cards. Supply and demand, yes, makes sense. But the fact that the cards were chip and pin (EMV) should make them less valuable because that demonstrably reduces the ability to use them fraudulently. Did the author mean that the chip and pin cards could be used in a country where EMV is not implemented--the US--and this mis-match make it easier to us them since the issuing banks may not have as robust anti-fraud controls as non-EMV banks because they assumed EMV would do the fraud prevention for them Read more...
Two possible reasons that I can think of and have seen in the past - 1) Cards issued by European banks when used online cross border don't usually support AVS checks. So, when a European card is used with a billing address that's in the US, an ecom merchant wouldn't necessarily know that the shipping zip code doesn't match the billing code. 2) Also, in offline chip countries the card determines whether or not a transaction is approved, not the issuer. In my experience, European issuers haven't developed the same checks on authorization requests as US issuers. So, these cards might be more valuable because they are more likely to get approved. Read more...
A smart card slot in terminals doesn't mean there is a reader or that the reader is activated. Then, activated reader or not, the U.S. processors don't have apps certified or ready to load into those terminals to accept and process smart card transactions just yet. Don't get your card(t) before the terminal (horse). Read more...
The marketplace does speak. More fraud capacity translates to higher value for the stolen data. Because nearly 100% of all US transactions are authorized online in real time, we have less fraud regardless of whether the card is Magstripe only or chip and PIn. Hence, $10 prices for US cards vs $25 for the European counterparts. Read more...
@David True. The European cards have both an EMV chip AND a mag stripe. Europeans may generally use the chip for their transactions, but the insecure stripe remains vulnerable to skimming, whether it be from a false front on an ATM or a dishonest waiter with a handheld skimmer. If their stripe is skimmed, the track data can still be cloned and used fraudulently in the United States. If European banks only detect fraud from 9-5 GMT, that might explain why American criminals prefer them over American bank issued cards, who have fraud detection in place 24x7. Read more...

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