PCI & the 166816 password

by adam on June 22, 2015

This was a story back around RSA, but I missed it until RSnake brought it up on Twitter: “[A default password] can hack nearly every credit card machine in the country.” The simple version is that Charles Henderson of Trustwave found that “90% of the terminals of this brand we test for the first time still have this code.” (Slide 30 of RSA deck.) Wow.

Now, I’m not a fan of the “ha-ha in hindsight” or “that’s security 101!” responses to issues. In fact, I railed against it in a blog post in January, “Security 101: Show Your List!

But here’s the thing. Credit card processors have a list. It’s the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard. That standard is imposed, contractually, on everyone who processes payment cards through the big card networks. In version 3, requirement 2 is “Do not use vendor-supplied defaults for system passwords.” This is not an obscure sub-bullet. As far as I can tell, it is not a nuanced interpretation, or even an interpretation at all. In fact, testing procedure 2.1.a of v3 of the standard says:

2.1.a Choose a sample of system components, and attempt to
log on (with system administrator help) to the devices and
applications using default vendor-supplied accounts and
passwords, to verify that ALL default passwords (including
those on … POS terminals…) have been changed. [I’ve elided a few elements of the list for clarity.]

Now, the small merchant may not be aware that their terminal has a passcode. They may have paid someone else to set it up. But shouldn’t that person have set it up properly? The issue is not that the passcodes are not reset, the issue that I’m worried about is that the system appears broken. We appear to have evidence that to get security right, the system requires activity by busy, possibly undertrained people. Why is that still required ten years into PCI?

This isn’t a matter of “checklists replacing security.” I have in the past railed against checklists (including in the book this blog is named after). But after I read “The Checklist Manifesto”, I’ve moderated my views a bit, such as in “Checklists and Information Security.” Here we have an example of exactly what checklists are good for: avoiding common, easy-to-make and easy-to-check mistakes.

When I raised some of these questions on Twitter someone said that the usual interpretation is that the site selects the sample (where they lack confidence). And to an extent, that’s understandable, and I’m working very hard avoid hindsight bias here. But I think it’s not hindsight bias to say that a sample should be a random sample unless there’s a very strong reason to choose otherwise. I think it’s not hindsight bias to note that your financial auditors don’t let you select which transactions are audited.

Someone else pointed out that it’s “first time audits” which is ok, but why, a decade after PCI 1.0, is this still an issue? Shouldn’t the vendor have addressed this by now? Admittedly, may be hard to manage device PINs at scale — if you’re Target with tens of thousands of PIN pads, and your techs need access to the PINs, what do you do to ensure that the tech has access while at the register, but not after they’ve quit? But even given such challenges, shouldn’t the overall payment card security system be forcing a fix to such issues?

All bellyaching and sarcastic commentary aside, if the PCI process isn’t catching this, what does that tell us? Serious question. I have ideas, but I’m really curious as to what readers think. Please keep it professional.

One comment

I was a tech for ATM machines, the amount of time you can find the instructions with default password just placed onto on a machine is hilarious!

by John on September 17, 2015 at 7:09 am. Reply #

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