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The CardSystems blame game

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Comment On July 21, 2005, the United States House of Representatives Committee on Financial Services, Subcommittee on Oversight held a hearing on Credit Card Data Processing: How Secure Is It?" Of course, just by asking the question,you already know what the answer is going to be: not a disaster, but about as secure as you might imagine.

The hearing focused on the massive data breach by CardSystems, which reportedly exposed credit card transaction records of approximately 40 million people because they stored these transaction records in contravention of rules established for VISA and MasterCard processors.

John Perry, CEO of CardSystems minimized the impact of the data breach, testifying that the attackers wrote a shell script designed to dump transaction records for "incompleted" transactions (which were stored by CardSystems for "research purposes") to an FTP site. Perry stated that there were only 239,000 discrete account numbers FTP'd, and that they have not been notified that any of these card numbers were used fraudulently. Yet.

None of this is surprising. One of the first things you do when confronted with a public relations problem is to minimize the extent of the problem. Lawyers do this all the time, exclaiming things like "My dog didn't bite you, my dog doesn't bite, I don't own a dog." The next thing to do, of course, is to find someone else to blame. In the case of CardSystems, they reportedly found someone who wasn't at the table to blame - not VISA, not MasterCard, not their sponsoring bank, and not their customers. They blamed their auditors and consultants.

In his testimony, Perry noted that CardSystems had undergone a CISP audit by consultants from Cable and Wireless in December of 2003 (17 months before the incident), and that there were "do deficiencies" that did not have adequate compensating controls. Thus, according to Perry's live testimony, it was Cable and Wireless's fault. Oh, and while he was at it, he also reportedly blamed the California mandatory disclosure law, SB 1386, claiming that without the law, the company would have suffered no losses. Well, still the data would have been lost, just nobody would have known about it.

Cable and Wireless claimed that there was nothing wrong with its audit, and that it was simply retained to audit the systems that were used to process the payment information. If there was a separate system used to store transactional data not connected to the processing system, or a system not within the scope of the audit, it was not examined.

Meeting of the minds

The relationship between consultant and client is almost always one based on a consulting agreement. The case points out a serious problem with understanding the nature of auditors, security consultants, and the relationship between these consultants and the underlying client. The consulting contract is supposed to reflect a meeting of the minds between the parties. Invariably however, the parties come to the table with differing expectations about what they are buying and selling.

In the case of CardSystems and Cable and Wireless, CardSystems thought they were auditing discrete parts of the payment processing network for compliance with VISA's standards. CardSystems, on the other hand, apparently thought it was purchasing "hacker insurance" and a guarantee that they would never be subject to attack. At a minimum, CardSystems was seeking a "Certificate of Assurance" that it was compliant with all the relevant standards. As we will see, even this latter assumption may be unrealistic.

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