Privacy Advisor

Web Watch - Complying With New Data Security Standards Will Help Keep Consumers Safe This Season

December 1, 2005

David Grant

It is no secret that privacy and security issues are a real concern for today's consumer. Consumer trust is critical to a company's bottom line.

With the arrival of the holiday shopping season, online retailers are gearing up for their busiest time of the year. But this season, merchants need to take extra steps to fine-tune their Web sites. Most importantly, they must secure consumer data to ensure safe online shopping and convince customers that they will protect their personal and credit-card information when making transactions on the Web.

The onslaught of highly publicized online breaches and identity theft scams, including the very public exposure of more than 40 million consumer credit cards earlier this year, has prompted credit card companies to insist on further measures to help ensure the security and privacy of their members' confidential information. With the introduction of new security measures, they are mandating that their retailers meet a certain level of compliance in an attempt to enforce better protection for their customers.

Visa's Cardholder Information Security Program (CISP) and MasterCard's Site Data Protection (SDP) program require merchants to meet certain standards for safeguarding account data. Now Visa and MasterCard have begun requiring retailers — banks, merchants and member service providers — to comply with the Payment Card Industry (PCI) Data Security Standards, which offer a single approach to safeguarding sensitive data for all card brands. Failure to comply with these security standards may result in fines, restrictions or permanent expulsion from card-acceptance programs.

According to PCI documentation, "the most elusive vulnerabilities are those introduced through custom-developed e-commerce applications." These applications are used to conduct online transactions or support holiday marketing initiatives. In fact, Gartner has estimated that 75 percent of online attacks are targeting Web applications.

However, many organizations remain focused on network-based vulnerabilities and continue to do very little to protect online applications. Network testing is not enough. Companies need to address the increasing threat of Web application vulnerabilities to secure their customer's information from breaches.

Smart companies will use this PCI standard as the motivation for putting their entire security- and privacy-compliance programs in order. Complying once and then forgetting about it until the next audit is bad practice. To successfully drive more business through the online channel, organizations cannot ignore Web privacy and application security. To take back control of the online channel, companies must embark on a path of dedication, education, business process improvement and risk management technology. Meeting the PCI 12 basic requirements is a great starting point, but to fully protect consumer data and implement a comprehensive online risk management strategy, organizations also must enforce policies that include ongoing compliance monitoring procedures. Consider these recommendations to encourage trust and help ensure safe online shopping:

Closely monitor and manage relationships with third parties to ensure the same, if not higher, security standards are in place to protect customer information. Security and privacy are not only about your company's site, but also those of outsourcers and partners that may handle sensitive information for your business.

Offer privacy and security guarantees to customers in the event of fraud or identity theft. Prominently highlight your company's promise to protect customer information and make privacy and security policies simple to understand and easily accessible on the Web site.

Communicate and market your online privacy and security features in ways consumers can understand. Retailers have an opportunity to incorporate site features that promote confidence and trust: Offer clear and easy ways to find help, grant clear control of personal data and increase transaction speed. It sounds basic, but Forrester recently reported that many sites still do not have these basics nailed.

Educate consumers about the dangers of online scams and alert them to newer threats such as phishing, key logging and pharming. The more knowledgeable your customers are to online scams, the less fearful and vulnerable they will be.

Limit the sharing of your customers' personal information with third parties. Enable customers to easily opt-in or opt-out of these initiatives and allow them to identify their preferred method of contact.

Develop an action plan to immediately update customers, legal authorities and the hosting provider of the offending site when a scam has been detected. By taking the appropriate steps to address the problem, you limit your company's exposure window.

Use automated solutions to monitor for vulnerabilities and achieve compliance with a range of laws, best practices and security and privacy policies. These also include the identification of privacy and Web application security issues and cross-site scripting vulnerabilities that can lead to breaches. Preventing or detecting glitches early will give you more lead-time to execute your response plan and will encourage a trusted online environment for customers.

So while your Web teams are busy optimizing the site to support the online rush, do not neglect the important step of securing the site, the applications and the data they collect. It only takes a single breach to ruin this important online season.

David Grant is Watchfire's director of product marketing and is responsible for developing and implementing Watchfire's enterprise product and marketing strategy. Watchfire provides enterprise software and services to manage online privacy, security quality and compliance risks. In this role, David oversees the strategic direction for the company's enterprise solution, WebXM, and its Web application security testing software AppScan®.