It is past time to stop the rash of retail credit card “breaches”

When you go shopping at Home Depot or Lowe’s, there are often tall ladders, saws, key cutters, and forklifts around the shopping floor. As a general rule, most of these tools aren’t for your use at all. You’re supposed to call over an employee if you need any of these tools to be used. Why? Because of risk and liability, of course. You aren’t trained to use these tools, and the insurance that the company holds would never cover their liability  if you were injured or died while operating these tools.

Over the past year, we have seen a colossal failure of American retail and restaurant establishments to adequately secure their point-of-sale (POS) systems. If you’ve somehow missed them all, Brian Krebs’ coverage serves as a good list of many of the major events.

As I’ve watched company after company fall prey to seemingly the same modus operandi as every company before, it has frustrated me more and more. When I wrote You have a management problem, my intention was to highlight the fact that there seems to be a fundamental disconnect in the strategies used to connect the risk to the security of key applications (and systems). But I think it’s actually worse than that.

If you’re a board member or CEO of a company in the US, and the CIO and CSO of the organizations you manage haven’t asked their staff the following question yet, there’s something fundamentally wrong.

That question every C-level in the US should be asking? “What happened at Target, Michael’s, P.F. Chang’s, etc… what have we done to ensure that our POS systems are adequately defended from this sort of easy exploitation?”

This is the most important question that any CIO and CSO in this country should be asking this year. They should be regularly asking this question, reviewing the threat models from within their organization created by staff to answer it, and performing the work necessary to validate they have adequately secured their POS infrastructure. This should not be a one time thing. It should be how the organization regularly operates.

My worry is that within too many orgs people are either a) not asking this question because they don’t know to ask it, b) dangerously assuming that they are secure, or c)  so busy, and nobody who knows better feels empowered to pull the emergency brake and bring the train to a standstill to truly examine the comprehensive security footing of their systems.

Don’t listen to people if they just reply by telling you that the systems are secure because, “We’re PCI compliant.” They’re ducking the responsibility of securing these systems through the often translucent facade of compliance.

Compliance and security can go hand in hand. But security is never achieved by stamping a system as “compliant”.

Security is achieved by understanding your entire security posture, through threat modeling. For any retailer, restaurateur, or hospitality organization in the US, this means you need to understand how you’re protecting the most valuable piece of information that your customers will be sharing with you, their ridiculously insecure 16-digit, magnetically encoded credit card/debit card number. Not their name. Not their email address. Their card number.

While it does take time to secure systems, and some of these exploits that have taken place over 2014 (such as Home Depot) may have even begun before Target discovered and publicized the attack on their systems, we are well past the point where any organization in the US should just be saying, “That was <insert already exploited retailer name>, we have a much more secure infrastructure.” If you’ve got a threat model that proves that, great. But what we’re seeing demonstrated time and again as these “breaches” are announced is that organizations that thought they were secure, were not actually secure.

During 2002, when I was in the Windows organization, we had, as some say, a “come to Jesus” moment. I don’t mean that expression to offend anyone. But there are few expressions that can adequately get the fundamental shift that happened. We were all excitedly working on several upcoming versions of Windows, having just sort of battened down some of the hatches that had popped open in XP’s original security perimeter, with XPSP1.

But due to several major vulnerabilities and exploits in a row, we were ordered (by Bill) to stop engineering completely, and for two months, all we were allowed to work on were tasks related to the Secure Windows Initiative and making Windows more secure, from the bottom up, by threat modeling the entire attack surface of the operating system. It cost Microsoft an immense amount of money and time. But had we not done so, customers would have cost the company far more over time as they gave up on the operating system due to insecurity at the OS level. It was an exercise in investing in proactive security in order to offset future risk – whether to Microsoft, to our customers, or to our customers’ customers.

I realize that IT budgets are thin today. I realize that organizations face more pressure to do more with less than ever before. But short of laws holding executives financially responsible for losses that are incurred under their watch, I’m not sure what will stop the ongoing saga of these largely inexcusable “breaches” we keep seeing. If your organization doesn’t have the resources to secure the technology you have, either hire the staff that can or stop using technology. I’m not kidding. Grab the knucklebusters and some carbonless paper and start taking credit cards like it’s the 1980’s again.

The other day, someone on Twitter noted that the recent spate of attacks shouldn’t really be called “breaches”, but instead should be called skimming attacks. Most of these attacks have worked by using RAM scrapers. This approach, first really seen in 2009, really hit the big time in 2013. RAM scrapers work through the use of a Windows executable (which, <ahem>, isn’t supposed to be there) scans memory (RAM) on POS systems when track data from US cards is scanned off of magnetically swiped credit cards. This laughably simple stunt is really the key to effectively all of the breaches (which I will now from here on out refer to as skimming attacks). A piece of software, which shouldn’t ever be on those systems, let alone be able to run on those systems, is freely scanning memory for data which, arguably, should be safe there, even though it is not encrypted.

But here we are, with these RAM scrapers violating law #2 of the 10 Immutable Laws of Security, these POS systems are obviously not secured as well as Microsoft, the POS manufacturer, or the VAR that installed it either would like them to be, and obviously everyone including the retailer assumed they were. Most likely, these RAM scrapers are usually going to be custom crafted enough to evade detection by (questionably useful) antivirus software. More importantly, many indications were that in many cases, these systems were apparently certified as PCI-DSS compliant in the exact same scenario that they were later compromised in. This indicates either a fundamental flaw in the compliance definition, tools, and/or auditor. It also indicates some fundamental holes in how these systems are presently defended against exploitation.

As someone who helped ship Windows XP (and contributed a tiny bit to Embedded, which was a sister team to ours), it makes me sad to see these skimming attacks happen. As someone who helped build two application whitelisting products, it makes me feel even worse, because… they didn’t need to happen.

Windows XP Embedded leaves support in January of 2016. It’s not dead, and can be secured properly (but organizations should absolutely be down the road of planning what they will replace XPE with). Both Windows and Linux, in embedded POS devices, suffer the same flaw; platform ubiquity. I can write a piece of malware that’ll run on my Windows desktop, or a Linux system, and it will run perfectly well on these POS systems (if they aren’t secured properly).

The bad guys always take advantage of the broadest, weakest link. It’s the reason why Adobe Flash and Acrobat, and Java are the points they go after on Windows and the OS X. The OSs are hardened enough up the stack that these unmanageable runtimes become the hole that exploitation shellcode often pole vaults through.

In many of these retail POS skimming attacks, remote maintenance software (to access a Windows desktop remotely) often secured with a poor password is the means that is being used to get code onto these systems. This scenario and exploit vector isn’t unique to retail, either. I guarantee you there are similar easy opportunities for exploit in critical infrastructure, in the US and beyond.

There are so many levels of wrong here. To start with, these systems:

  1. Shouldn’t have remote access software on them
  2. Shouldn’t have the ability to run every arbitrary binary that is put on them.

These systems shouldn’t have any remote access software on them at all. If they must, this software should implement physical, not password-based, authentication. These systems should be sealed, single purpose, and have AppLocker or third-party software to ensure that only the Windows (or Linux, as appropriate) applications, drivers, and services that are explicitly authorized to run on them can do so. If organizations cannot invest in the technology to properly secure these systems, or do not have the skills to do so, they should either hire staff skilled in securing them, cease using PC-based technology and start using legacy technology, or examine using managed iOS or Windows RT-based devices that can be more readily locked down to run only approved applications.


  1. Your post is accurate except that I don’t think you take into account one of the biggest fundamental problems. A majority of sites use their POS server for additional purposes. I’ve seen sites do everything from email to social media on computers that also run the POS. At small customers it’s because they can’t afford the expense of an additional pc and larger customers say they just don’t want to take up additional space in usually small and crowded manager offices. Since the customer purchased his system, as the VAR all i can do is had them a waiver form that essentially says “you are being stupid” for them to sign. Just like auto makers who put seat belts in cars , they are there but I can’t force you to use them.
    I’ve been in the pos system installation and management for 16 years, and if the average consumer would see what I’ve seen they would never use anything other than cash.

  2. […] practices and actually fighting back against well-intentioned compliance efforts (thus reinforcing what I’ve long said, “Compliance and security can go hand in hand. But security is never achieved by stamping […]