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Visa has published best practices for data field encryption (AKA end-to-end encryption) that call on merchants to always encrypt cardholder data.

Data field encryption covers techniques for ensuring swiped credit data is always stored and transmitted in an encrypted format right from the point where a customer plastic is swiped or an online order is taken. The approach is designed to supplement existing PCI DSS security standards for merchants in helping to protect cardholder data from hacking attacks, particularly those targeted at retailers or online merchants.

PCI DSS covers the need to run up to date anti-virus and to use encryption for wireless networks without making specific recommendations. The data encryption best practice offers advice on encryption from a comparable standpoint, such as using robust key lengths for encryption and protecting terminal devices against tampering.

Sensitive authentication data such as CVV2 numbers or PINs should only be used for authorisation and never held on merchant's systems.

The publication of data field encryption standards follows in the wake of recent high-profile security breaches at firms such as TJX.

Standards in the area are in an early sage of development, but we might expect Visa to adopt a carrot and stick approach towards merchants in encouraging their adoption. Reduced processing fees for early adopters will be put together with big fines for merchants who do experience a breach and aren't following the guidelines.

In addition to publishing encryption best practices, Visa also announced that it will chair the ANSI X9F6 standards working group helping to guide the development of a data field encryption standard.

Data field encryption applies after the card is swiped and dealt with within a merchant's environment until it reaches a payment processing firm. What happens within the payment processor until it goes to Visa is covered by separate guidelines.

Visa accepts encrypted transaction data from acquirers, third-party processors and merchants directly connected to VisaNet.

"While no single technology will completely solve for fraud, data field encryption can be an effective security layer to render cardholder data useless to criminals in the event of a merchant data breach," said Eduardo Perez, global head of data security at Visa. "Using encryption as one component of a comprehensive data security program can enhance a merchant's security by eliminating any clear text data either in storage or in flight." ®

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