Monday, 4 November 2013

Is Your QSA Making You Less Secure?

Most organizations will turn to a QSA when undertaking a PCI Compliance project. A Qualified Security Assessor is the guy you need to satisfy with any security measures and procedures you implement to meet compliance with the PCI DSS so it makes sense to get them to tell you what you need to do.
For many, PCI Compliance is about simply dealing with the PCI DSS in the same way they would deal with another deadlined project. When does the bank want us to be PCI Compliant and what do we need to do before we get audited in order to get a pass?

PCI Compliance project For many, this is where the problems often begin, because of course, PCI compliance isn’t simply about passing an audit but getting your organization sufficiently organized and aware of the need to protect cardholder data at all times. The cliché in PCI circles is ‘don’t take a checkbox approach to compliance’ but it is true. Focusing on passing the audit is a tangible goal, but it should only be a milestone along the way to maturing internal processes and procedures in order to operate a secure environment every day of the year, not just to drag your organization through an annual audit.

The QSA Moral Maze
However, for many, the QSA is hired to ‘make PCI go away’ and this can sometimes present a dilemma. QSAs are in business and need to compete for work like any other commercial venture. They are typically fiercely independent and take their responsibility seriously for providing expert guidance, however, they also have bills to pay.

Some get caught by the conflict of interest between advising the implementation of measures and offering to supply the goods required. This presents a difficult choice for the customer – go along with what the QSA says, and buy whatever they sell you, or go elsewhere for any kit required and risk the valuable relationship needed to get through the audit. Whether this is for new firewalls, scanning or Pen Testing services, or FIM and Logging/SIEM products, too many Merchants have been left to make difficult decisions. The simple solution is to separate your QSA from supplying any other service or product for your PCI project, but make sure this is clarified up front.

The second common conflict of interest is one that affects any kind of consultant. If you are being paid by the day for your services, would you want the engagement to be shorter or longer? If you had the opportunity to influence the duration of the engagement, would you fight for it to be ended sooner, or be happy to let it run longer?

Let’s not be too cynical over this – the majority of Merchants have paid widely differing amounts for their QSA services but have been delighted with the value for money received. But we have had one experience recently where the QSA has asked for repeated network and system architecture re-designs. They have recommended that firewalls be replaced with more advanced versions with better IPS capabilities. In both instances, you can see that the QSA is giving accurate and proper advice, however, one of the unfortunate side-effects of doing so is that the Merchant delays implementation of other PCI DSS requirements. The result in this case is that the QSA actually delays security measures being put in place, in other words, the security expert’s advice is to prolong the organizations weak security posture!

The QSA community is a rich source of security experience and expertise, and who better to help navigate and organization through a PCI Program than those responsible for conducting the audit for compliance with the standard. However, best practice is to separate the QSA from any other aspect of the project. Secondly, self-educate and help yourself by becoming familiar with security best practices – it will save time and money if you can empower yourself instead of paying by the day to be taught the basics. Finally, don’t delay implementing security measures – you know your systems better than anyone else, so don’t pay to prolong your project! Seize responsibility for de-scoping your environment where possible, then apply basic best practices to the remaining systems in scope – harden, implement change controls, measure effectiveness using file integrity monitoring and retain audit trails of all system activity. It’s simpler than your QSA might leave you to believe.

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