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The Coalfire Blog

What “Dexter Malware” tells us about the future of POS security (It might just be P2PE)

December 20, 2012, Dan Fritsche, Principal, Retail and Financial Services

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Dan Fritsche

The recently announced Dexter malware is targeting POS systems and once in, it collects sensitive credit card data and surreptitiously sends it off to attackers. While the details of this particular attack are not yet available, this is not the first time this general approach has been exploited.

Earlier this year, Coalfire reviewed a situation where a merchant took a proactive and valid approach – they implemented a point of sale (POS) solution that eliminated the need to store any cardholder data on the POS. However, the merchant failed to follow one small piece of guidance in the software’s implementation guide and inadvertently continued to use a small piece of third party software that was no longer considered to be secure. Turns out, hackers exploited that vulnerability to plant malware in the merchant’s environment.

Even though the merchant was following PCI DSS protocols, this was brand new malware (as seems to have been the case with Dexter), so it got by their anti-virus protections. There was no stored cardholder data on the POS, but there was unencrypted cardholder data in memory. The malware scraped the memory and sent the data off to the attackers. Thankfully, the attackers got impatient and started printing and using cards early, before a large number of accounts were compromised. Once detected, the malware was found and deleted before the breach got out of hand.

So what does this instance (and Dexter) tell us? Something most security pros already know: it’s really hard to do everything right. Missing an even minor update can lead to a big problem. The question for both this scenario and for the current Dexter malware is the same; can this be prevented? Technology leaders in the industry think so and many technology vendors have been working on P2PE solutions for several years. The PCI SSC this year has released an official program to encourage the adoption of these technologies. In both of these scenarios, if the data had been encrypted at the initial card swipe the malware would have had nothing to collect other than encrypted data. In a properly implemented P2PE solution the merchant would have no ability to decrypt the data, therefore any data collected from their environment is then useless to the attacker and there would be no compromise.

Here at Coalfire, we’re pretty excited about hardware-based encryption because we think it will make it easier to fully eradicate cardholder data from merchant environments. Of course, we don’t sell P2PE solutions, nor do we get paid by the vendors that do sell them. But we are helping vendors, processors and merchants evaluate and deploy them, and we like what we see. And perhaps Dexter’s voice will join the chorus.

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