Having a PCI compliant store requires the sustained efforts of both yourself and your hosting provider. Although there are no shortcuts, choosing a credible web hosting provider is an effective place to start. Even so, most PCI requirements can only be met by you, the merchant. Read on to learn more about the dividing line between host and merchant, and why it can be worthwhile to go beyond PCI for your customers.
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What Is PCI?
In ecommerce, PCI is shorthand for Payment Card Industry Data Security Standards (PCI DSS). Created in 2004, PCI DSS aim to help protect consumers and prevent credit card fraud. It is required for any organization that receives, processes, or stores credit card data of any of the five members of the PCI Security Council: VISA, MasterCard, American Express, Discover, and JCB.
The list of requirements is extensive, to put it mildly. The requirements span six categories, and each category is divided into several hundred specific requirements. Some fall exclusively under the domain of either merchants or hosting providers, while some extend to both. PCI compliance is also not a one-time requirement, as the Security Council makes periodic adjustments to address new threats to consumers.
Compliance is not a “one-and-done” event. It requires daily, weekly, monthly, and annual tasks to maintain compliance. There are 12 general requirements divided among six categories. For illustrative purposes, we’ve listed these same categories, but also included more specific requirements from within PCI DSS.
6 Key Categories for PCI Compliance
Build and maintain a secure network. Install and maintain a firewall. Use unique, high-security passwords with special care to replace default passwords.
Protect cardholder data. Whenever possible, do not store cardholder data. If there is a business need to store cardholder data, then you must protect this data. Encrypt any data passed across public networks, including data passed between your shopping cart, your Web-hosting provider, and your customers.
Maintain a vulnerability management program. Use antivirus software and keep it up to date. Develop and maintain secure operating systems and payment applications. Ensure your antivirus software applications are compliant with your chosen card companies.
Implement strong access control measures. Access to cardholder data, both electronic and physical, should be on a need-to-know basis. Ensure those people with electronic access have a unique ID and password. Do not allow people to share login credentials. Educate yourself and your employees on data security, and specifically the PCI Data Security Standard (DSS).
Regularly monitor and test networks. Track and monitor all access to networks and cardholder data. Maintain a regular testing schedule for security systems and processes, including: firewalls, patches, web servers, email servers, and antivirus.
Maintain an information security policy. Establish a clear and thorough organizational data security policy. Disseminate and update this policy regularly.
PCI non-compliance can result in fines ranging between $5000—$100,000 per month, depending on the size of the offending organization, its severity, and other factors. Non-compliance can also result in legal action, security breaches, and lost revenue.
PCI Requirements for Hosting Providers
It is virtually impossible for the typical merchant to be PCI compliant without enlisting the services of a compliant hosting provider. Merchants that host their own websites must meet hosting provider requirements in addition to meeting those for merchants. Such a model works for massive enterprises like Amazon and WalMart, but few others.
Following are some of the highlights of our systems and policies that uphold our status as a PCI compliant hosting provider. The term “cardholder data environment” refers to any system that stores, processes, or transmits credit card data as well as any system that has access to cardholder data environment itself.
We maintain a web application firewall (WAF), which monitors all connections between the cardholder data environment and other networks. ModSec prohibits public access to sensitive areas, identifies untrusted connections, and hides IP addresses and routing information from unauthorized parties.
We apply industry-accepted configuration standards for all system components that address all known security vulnerabilities. This extends to our internal and external network, our operating systems, and hardware required to host web services.
We apply cryptography and security protocols that encrypt and protect cardholder data even when transmitted across public networks. SSL certificates and other trusted security keys are unilaterally enforced. Only modern TLS ciphers are permitted.
We restrict physical access to our data center with 24-hour security policies and a team trained to implement them. This includes, but is not limited to:
- Video surveillance with 90-day footage history
- Secured entry with at least two-factor authentication (PIN, access card) in most areas, and three-factor authentication (PIN, access card, thumbprint) in areas housing the cardholder data environment
- Visible identification on all team members
- Visitor policy that prevents unauthorized public access; authorized external individuals have access only to required areas and are escorted at all times
- Team members are given access to the cardholder data environment only if their role requires it
- Restricted access to network jacks, wireless access points, gateways, networks, and other lines of communication
We track and monitor access to network resources and cardholder data, though it falls to clients to maintain logs and monitor logins for their own applications (Magento, WordPress, and so on).
We regularly test our security systems and processes, and perform internal penetration testing at regular intervals as well as after any significant infrastructure upgrade.
PCI Requirements for Merchants
Properly implemented, PCI compliance helps merchants adhere to commonly accepted best practices of data security. Hosting with a PCI compliant provider is a solid first step, but becoming compliant still requires action on your part.
If your store accepts credit cards as payment, it must be PCI compliant whether you store that data or not. Choosing a PCI Compliant web host is only the first step. Most credible web hosts can provide merchants with materials outlining their respective responsibilities upon request, but ultimately it is on merchants to understand and meet these requirements.
Regrettably, there is no “one size fits all” checklist. Your specific responsibilities will vary according to your merchant level (1–4, with 1 being the highest), which is generally determined by the number of credit card transactions your store processes annually.
The general process for most merchants is:
- Identify, understand, and implement the appropriate PCI DSS requirements.
- Complete a Self Assessment Questionnaire (SAQ). The SAQ is a checklist outlining the requirements. Depending on your level, some or all of them will apply to you. Level 1 merchants have the most requirements; level 4, the least.
Resist the temptation to simply “check every box” in the SAQ. Doing so endangers your customers and exposes your business to liability. The PCI stands to lose money from breaches, and in response may investigate your SAQ and AOC.
- Submit to a quarterly scan by an Approved Scanning Vendor (ASV), an independent, qualified authority that performs external vulnerability scans on your systems.
- Complete the Attestation of Compliance (AOC), a document asserting that you are both eligible to perform and have in fact performed the SAQ to the best of your ability.
- If classified as a level 1 merchant, you must take additional steps, including an on-site assessment.
If climbing the considerable hurdle of PCI compliance doesn’t appeal to you, you’re not alone. Your hosting provider can answer questions related to overlapping responsibility, and third party Qualified Security Assessors (QSAs) can help businesses run the PCI gauntlet (for a price).
One universal component is the need to confirm that all of your service providers are PCI compliant. This includes your hosting provider, but also extends to payment processors, payment gateways, POS providers, and any other entities that touch your customers’ cardholder data.
Some PCI Essentials for Merchants
- Maintain PCI compliance. Compliance requires ongoing awareness and daily application. Tasks range between daily and annual, but all are recurring.
- Don’t just check “Yes” to every question in the SAQ. Due diligence protects your business and your customers.
- Know your code, or use a developer that does. Implement best practices of deployment using staging and dev sites without exception.
- Establish a secure password policy. Use complex, unique passwords and never allow your staff to share login credentials or use default passwords.
- Enable two-factor authentication for all of your internal users, and consider providing it as an option for customers logging in to your site.
- Use a web application firewall (WAF). At Nexcess, we provide one for all clients and it’s enabled by default.
- Don’t just take your hosting provider’s word for it. Confirm they’re PCI Compliant and competent by asking for (and getting) their Attestation of Compliance (AOC).
- Keep your applications and extensions current to the latest stable release, and actively monitor for new threats and versions.
If PCI compliance were enough, breaches of high-profile organizations would be far less common. Compliant should not mean complacent.
In reality, PCI compliance is “Cardholder Data Security 101.” It is the minimum acceptable standard and a reasonable introduction, but PCI is far from infallible. Credit card companies require compliance. Merchants adhering to PCI standards will be more effective at protecting consumers than businesses that just pay them lip service, but PCI compliance is only the first step.
The very nature of PCI — a large, curated document updated only periodically — makes it vulnerable. Standards deemed sufficient in the “current” version are often exposed as inadequate. It can take months or even years for PCI to “catch up,” and bad actors are well aware of its limitations.
The best protection is knowledge. At Nexcess, we have team members that specialize in web security who stay well-versed in the newest threats, breaches, and countermeasures. Many merchants may be reluctant to enlist the services of a security expert. At the very least, we recommend subscribing to security notifications for your ecommerce application and following at least one credible web security news source. Both sources react much faster than the PCI, and following them will help you “spot the smoke” before it becomes a fire.
We’re on the List!
Don’t forget, we’re “On the List” of PCI compliant providers officially recognized by the Visa Global Registry. That means we’ve shown a continued commitment to reviewing and improving our security policies to match and exceed PCI compliance requirements. If you’re looking for a PCI compliant provider, hosting with Nexcess means you’re hosting with an approved and recognized provider. Learn more about the PCI compliant hosting with Nexcess.
For guidance with PCI compliance, contact our sales team between 9 a.m.–5 p.m. eastern time, Monday to Friday.