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FMG Law Blog Line

VISA Issues Security Alert Due to Increased Data Breaches Caused by Insecure Remote Access

Posted on: July 30th, 2014

By: David Cole

When a merchant experiences a data breach involving credit card information, it is often required by the card brands to hire a Payment Card Industry Forensic Investigator (PFI). The PFI investigates the incident and then provides a report to the card brands on what happened, how it happened, and whether the merchant’s system complied with the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standards (PCI DSS).  The card brands receive hundreds of PFI reports each year, and they occasionally issue security alerts when they see an emerging threat pattern in PFI reports.

Just this month, Visa issued a security alert titled “Insecure Remote Access and User Credential Management,” in which it reported an increase in data security breaches stemming from insecure remote access.  The alert notes that a number of remote access solutions are commonly used to provide remote management and support for merchants, such as LogMeIn, PCAnywhere, VNC, and Microsoft Remote Desktop.  When used correctly, applications like these are effective ways to provide technical support among large numbers of merchants.  But if used maliciously, they can expose payment card data and other sensitive information to cyber criminals. This is because insecurely deployed remote access applications create a conduit for cyber criminals to log in, establish additional “back doors” by installing malware, and steal payment card data.

The alert warns that the circumstances around multiple data breaches in the last several months suggest that an actor or group of actors are targeting merchants who share common Point-of-Sale (POS) integrators or remote support vendors.  It then identifies several common vulnerabilities that are allowing intruders to gain access through remote applications.  These include: (1) remote access ports and services always being available on the Internet; (2) outdate or unpatched systems; (3) use of default passwords or no passwords at all; (4) use of common usernames and passwords; (5) single factor authentication; and (6) improperly configured firewalls.

To protect against these vulnerabilities, the alert advises merchants to examine their remote management software for insecure configurations, use of outdated or unpatched applications, common or easily-guessed usernames and passwords, and ensure that overall payment processing environment is securely configured and maintained in accordance with the PCI DSS.  In addition, merchants should follow these other security practices to mitigate their risk:

  • Ensure proper firewalls rules are in place, only allowing remote access only from known IP addresses.
  • If remote connectivity is required, enable it only when needed.
  • Contact your support provider or POS vendor and verify that a unique username and password exists for each of your remote management applications.
  • Use the latest version of remote management applications and ensure that the latest security patches are applied prior to deployment.
  • Plan to migrate away from outdated or unsupported operating systems like Windows XP.
  • Enable logging in remote management applications.
  • Do not use default or easily-guessed passwords.
  • Restrict access to only the service provider and only for established time periods.
  • Only use remote access applications that offer strong security controls.
  • Always use two-factor authentication for remote access. Two-factor authentication can be something you have (a device) as well as something you know (a password).
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