PCI Playing Mobile Limbo

Written by Mark Rasch
March 23rd, 2011

Attorney Mark D. Rasch is the former head of the U.S. Justice Department’s computer crime unit and today serves as Director of Cybersecurity and Privacy Consulting at CSC in Virginia.

Given the very nature of PCI, it does horribly when dealing with new technologies. That is, of course, the exact area where PCI needs to be really strong. When technology is new, that’s when PCI guidance is most needed. Six months after everyone has deployed is not the best time to weigh in with advice. Giving retail chains a choice of either holding back or not complying with PCI is hardly the best move for an industry that needs to constantly grow and evolve.

The punitive response options from the PCI Council were designed for chains that violate current PCI guidelines, in that those businesses engaged in explicitly forbidden behavior. But the rules have no standard way to deal with new technology. A new payment system, unanticipated by the rules, is neither PCI Approved nor PCI Rejected. It is, frankly, PCI Limbo.

The irony of all of this is that it suggests only one legitimate retail course: Proceed with the technology anyway, without waiting for guidance. Take the current PCI situation with mobile payment rules. After however many months it takes, the council will eventually issue its guidance.

And if it follows historic patterns, the council will give a generous amount of time—maybe 12 to 18 months—for retailers to abide by the new rules. Heck, in PCI 1.2, the council gave retailers two years to ditch WEP, even when WEP was considered to be highly insecure.

Even at 12 months, that amount of time—on top of the months the PCI Council will still take to decide—will likely mean that retailers will be ready by then to move to the next generation of mobile platforms. Therefore, it’s quite safe (PCI-wise) to move ahead right away with mobile plans. But you still need to be careful about how you make that move. Making sure your mobile payment approaches are as secure and bulletproof as you can possibly make them will go a long way to avoiding PCI fireworks.

There is, however, a bigger issue at play here. Technology moves at the speed of the Web. Law moves at the speed of lawyers. And slow, deliberate and ponderous lawyers at that. As a merchant seeking to adopt new technologies—particularly in the mobile payment arena—should you wait until there are final binding rules (under PCI-DSS) for the security of a particular new application or just blaze forward, cross your fingers and hope for the best? Are you in breach of contract when the contract is silent on the new technology? And what are your duties to your acquiring bank, the payment card industry generally, your shareholders and customers where the DSS standards are silent? The quick answer is, “don’t move forward to fail, but don’t fail to move forward.” In other words, proceed—but proceed with caution.


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