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Google Security Demo Reveals—And Undermines—More Than Intended

June 1st, 2011

Security has never been primarily about high-end routers and extreme encryption. Those elements are important, of course, but security holes are generally due to a lack of attention to detail or to someone not being creative about how a thief might take advantage of the system. The hallmark of a security person is paranoia, evidenced by someone who religiously logs out of a site when done, who grabs his/her paper payment receipt at a restaurant and hand-delivers it to the cashier, and who turns wireless access on to send a message and then immediately shuts it down.

In a datacenter, security is relatively easy—there are policies and procedures, firewalls and monitoring. Get those correct and, at least in theory, it’s much easier for IT professionals to keep the bad guys out. Once the basics are in place, then those all-but-paranoid security guys can try to out-think the would-be thieves.

But when it comes to mobile, where ordinary people with no security mindset are at the center of every transaction, there are two security weak points: potential thieves and the mobile users themselves. No suspicious IT people are in the loop, watching for signs of trouble. Security has to be baked into the hardware and software—which means it depends completely on the paranoia of the people who are putting together the system. If they’re not security fanatics, no one else in the mobile transaction will be.

With that in mind, let’s go back to that Google news conference. Bedier was stressing the security of his new payment system, pointing to safeguards at the chip level. But then he was cavalier with payment-card data from his personal card, even after telling the audience he’s a “security freak” and pointing out that displaying the card data is unacceptable. Bedier isn’t a spokesmodel. He’s in charge of the operational aspects of this rollout, and he was recruited from PayPal specifically for that task.

How much comfort does this demonstration give to retailers that are trying to determine if Google has really thought this process all the way through? Especially when it’s a new business model, a new security model, unfamiliar hardware and software and a company that, for all its size and experience handling huge amounts of search data, has never made a ripple in the payments business?

For the record, Google did indeed appear to have created a very good system with reasonable security. That makes it all the more unfortunate that this subliminal message of security lack-of-attention-to-detail went out.


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