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Did PCI Just Kill E-Commerce By Saying SSL is Not Sufficient For Payment Info ? (spoiler: TLS!=SSL)

Published: 2015-02-11
Last Updated: 2015-02-11 19:27:04 UTC
by Johannes Ullrich (Version: 1)
8 comment(s)

The "Council's Assessor Newsletter", which is distributed by the Payment Card Industry council responsible for the PCI security standard, contained an interesting paragraph that is causing concerns among businesses that have to comply with PCI for online transactions. [1]

The paragraph affects version 3.1 of the standard. Currently, version 3.0 of the standard is in effect, and typically these point releases clarify and update the standard, but don't include completely new requirements. In short, the newsletter states that

 no version of SSL meets PCI SSC's definition of "strong cryptography" 

Wow. Is this the end of e-commerce as we know it? I thought SSL is (was?) THE standard to protect data on the wire. Yes, it had issues, but a well configured SSL capable web server should be able to protect data as valuable as a credit card number adequately. So what does it mean?

Not quite. You can (and should!) do https without SSL. Remember TLS? That's right: SSL is out. TLS is in. Many developers and system administrators use "SSL" and "TLS" interchangeably. SSL is not TLS. TLS is an updated version of SSL, and you should not use ANY version of SSL (SSLv3 being killed by POODLE). So what you should do is to make sure you are using TLS, and this "new" rule wont affect you at all.

Secondly, you could try to take advantage of new JavaScript APIs to encrypt the data on the client before it is ever sent to the server. This is a neat option, that is not yet available in all browsers, but something to consider in particular if you pass payment information to backend systems. In this case, you pass a public key as a JavaScript variable, and then use JavaScript on the client to encrypt the card number. Only backend systems that need to know the raw payment data will have the private key to encrypt this information.

Next: Also make sure your system administrators, and hopefully your QSAs understand that SSL != TLS and assess you correctly.


Johannes B. Ullrich, Ph.D.

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