A developer's guide to complying with PCI DSS 3.0 Requirement 6

Develop and maintain secure systems and applications

The Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) is a highly prescriptive technical standard, which is aimed at the protection of debit and credit card details, which is referred to within the payments industry as cardholder data. The objective of the standard is to prevent payment card fraud, by securing cardholder data within organizations that either accept card payments, or are involved in the handling of cardholder data. PCI DSS consists of 12 sections of requirements, and usually responsibility for compliance rests with IT infrastructure support. PCI DSS requirement 6, however, breaks down into 28 individual requirements, and sits squarely with software developers involved in the development of applications that process, store, and transmit cardholder data. PCI compliance heavily revolves around IT services. IT focused compliance managers that are tasked with achieving compliance within organizations, often lack the required software developer knowledge and experience to help assure that the application development meets the arduous requirements of PCI DSS. Follow along to read a developer's perspective to complying with PCI DSS requirements.

Dave Whitelegg (dw@itsecurityexpert.co.uk), Senior Information Security and PCI Consultant , Freelance Writer

David WhiteleggDave Whitelegg is UK-based Information Security Expert, Blogger, Writer, Presenter, and Security Professional CISSP CCSP ISO27001 Lead and PCI ISA. Follow Dave on Twitter: @securityexpert on Twitter.



09 July 2014

Understanding the nature of PCI DSS compliance

PCI DSS compliance is not about passing a yearly audit to ensure that all of the right boxes are ticked when a PCI assessment is conducted. PCI compliance is the achievement of a continued business as usual secure state of operation. Annual assessments of compliance, even when undertaken by an external PCI Qualified Security Assessor (QSA), are a limited sampling exercise, and provides no cover or protection to the organization in the event of a cardholder data breach. There is no official certificate of PCI DSS compliance, since compliance is not judged by a certificate, but ultimately by whether cardholder data is kept secure by meeting all of the requirements, or not.

The objective of PCI DSS is to reach and maintain an operational state of compliance with all 330 requirements, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. This goal must always be considered when you introduce processes and controls to satisfy requirements, since anything less fails to adequately reduce the risk of cardholder breaches and costly fines.

From the information security and risk perspective, it is important to understand the PCI standard is only concerned with the protection of cardholder data, and the standard sets a minimum level of security requirements. Although the standard is a good starting point for an Information Security strategy, PCI DSS is not enough to cover the entire information security piece for any organization. For instance, PCI DSS does not cover availability. Credit card companies are not concerned if payment systems go down if the cardholder data is secure. Equally, the minimum controls set out in PCI DSS might not be enough to meet your business's risk appetite. For example, requirement 11.2 states external vulnerability scans must occur on at least a quarterly basis. For most organizations, meeting this minimum requirement is not sufficient, and the typical best practice is to vulnerability scan externally on a monthly or even daily basis. The point is not to take a tick box approach and follow PCI DSS requirements robotically, but instead to always consider the risk that each requirement addresses, as applying the bare minimum might not be suitable to your organization.


PCI development requirements

Most of PCI DSS requirements that affect software development fall within requirements 3, 4, and 6 of the standard. Requirements 3 and 4 concern the protection of cardholder data, in that any developed application that processes, stores, and transmits cardholder data, must meet PCI DSS functional security requirements. This protection includes elements like access control and encryption of cardholder data. Application functional PCI requirements are expected to be instructed by the organization to developers, as part of the application's requirement definition. They can therefore be regarded as not a direct development PCI responsibility. Developers are directly responsible for compliance with PCI DSS requirement 6, since this section of PCI DSS concerns application development.


PCI requirement 6: Develop and maintain secure systems and applications

PCI DSS requirement 6 applies to the development of any internal or external application that is considered as 'in scope' of PCI DSS compliance. This means any developed application that processes, stores, and transmits cardholder data.

Payment applications that are developed by software vendors for use by multiple external organizations are subject to the Payment Application Data Security Standard (PA-DSS), and are required to be assessed by a PA-QSA (see Resources).

6.1 Establish a process to identify security vulnerabilities, by using reputable outside sources for security vulnerability information, and assign a risk ranking (for example, as 'high,' 'medium,' or 'low') to newly discovered security vulnerabilities.

Compliance with requirement 6.1 starts by identifying and documenting a software asset list of all tools and libraries that are used within the development process, including those assets deployed with applications. The software asset list must detail a version, where tools and libraries are used, and an explanation of the function they provide. As software tools and libraries are frequently changed by developers, it is important to regularly review the software asset list to ensure that it is always kept up to date.

After you establish a software asset list, implement a process to regularly monitor each item on the list for notification of vulnerabilities and patches. Monitoring must be from reputable sources and can be achieved by signing up to official RSS feeds, newsgroups, emailing lists, and websites like Mitre's CVE), which covers most of the common tools that are used in development. Be aware that more niche development tools and libraries, especially those directly sourced from a third party, require direct monitoring of the software vendor and open source websites.

Upon discovery of a new vulnerability for a tool or library that is listed on the software asset list, it first must be risk that is assessed and labeled with a risk rating (High, Medium, or Low). This PCI requirement allows the prioritization of patching, or if a patch is not available, helps the decision making of whether to apply more security controls to mitigate vulnerability risk.

PCI Myth Busting: Requirement 6.1 cannot be met by vulnerability scanning

The Heartbleed bug (CVE-2014-0160) is a good example of how application vulnerability monitoring ideally works (see Resources). On April 1, 2014, Google's security team issued a critical vulnerability alert with the OpenSSL library, a library that is used in over 500,000 of the world's web applications to encrypt web traffic. An organization compliant with version 6.1 would already understand its usage of OpenSSL within the cardholder environment, and therefore would actively monitor for notifications of vulnerabilities and patches with regard to OpenSSL. Therefore, after Google's alert, the development team would have risk assessed the vulnerability and applied a risk rating.

6.2 Ensure that all system components and software are protected from known vulnerabilities by installing applicable vendor-supplied security patches. Install critical security patches within one month of release.

Requirement 6.2 builds on the vulnerability monitoring that is covered in 6.1. When a critical vulnerability becomes known and a patch is available to resolve it, the patch must be applied within a month. Patches for vulnerabilities rated at lower levels of criticality must be applied within 2 to 3 months. Maintain a patching audit log as evidence of compliance.

In the Heartbleed bug example, the issue was resolved by installing a version of the OpenSSL library that is not vulnerable to the bug. Therefore, a month after the OpenSSL critical vulnerability notification, any application that is involved in the processing, transmission, and storage of cardholder data, which was still vulnerable to the Heartbleed bug, cannot be considered as PCI DSS compliant.

Considering the criticality of the Heartbleed bug, in reality most organizations sought to apply the patch immediately. Remember, PCI DSS sets a minimum baseline of security requirements, and these minimum levels might not be rigid enough to meet your organization's risk appetite. The one month time period listed in Requirement 6.2 is an example of this minimal level. Many organizations consider it to be a too lax a time period for the application of critical patches.

6.3 Develop internal and external software applications (including web-based administrative access to applications) securely, as follows:

  • In accordance with PCI DSS (for example, secure authentication and logging)
  • Based on industry standards and best practices
  • Incorporating information security throughout the software-development lifecycle

Requirement 6.3 helps ensure that applications are developed in a structured manner, by using development processes that adhere to known secure best practices.

PCI Myth Busting: Requirement 6.3 applies to applications developed by external third parties on behalf of the organization.

Applications must be developed in accordance with a formal software development lifecycle, which is based on industry standards or best practices, with security embedded within each stage of the lifecycle. The software development lifecycle must be documented, specifically detailing how security and PCI requirements are addressed within the definition, design, analysis, and testing phases of development.

The application development documentation must be descriptive in covering how an application processes, transmits, and stores cardholder data. To achieve compliance with 6.3, aim to make the documentation descriptive enough to be understood and followed by a third-party developer alien to your organization.

To ensure and prove that developers adhere to the documented development lifecycle, formally record the completion of each development stage with an independent management review and approval process. And conduct regular audits/reviews of the development process, documenting findings.

6.3.1 Remove development, test and custom application accounts, user IDs, and passwords before applications become active or are released to customers.

For compliance with requirement 6.3.1, a process is required to verify that all developer accounts are removed from released applications. This process needs to be documented as part of the application release cycle, including an audit record that shows the successful completion of an account review for each release of an application by development.

6.3.2 Review custom code prior to release to production or customers to identify any potential coding vulnerability (using either manual or automated processes) to include at least the following.

Requirement 6.3.2 requires a code review to be conducted, which must be completed by individuals who are not the code author.

The code reviewers must be knowledgeable and experienced in both the coding technologies that are used, and with secure coding practices, including PCI DSS requirements that are listed under requirement 6.5.

As part of the code review, reviewers need to verify adherence to the documented development lifecycle process, per requirements 6.3 and 6.3.1.

The code review process and findings must be documented and recorded. Management must approve the completion of the code review before any application release.

6.4 Examine policies and procedures to verify that the following are defined.

  • Development/test environments are separate from production environments with access control in place to enforce separation.
  • A separation of duties between personnel that are assigned to the development/test environments and those persons assigned to the production environment.
  • Production data (live PANs) is not used for testing or development.
  • Test data and accounts are removed before a production system becomes active.
  • Change control procedures that are related to implementing security patches and software modifications are documented.

PCI DSS does not regard development and test environments as ever secure enough environments to contain cardholder data. Therefore, the standard has a strict set of requirements to ensure the separation of development and test environments from production environments.

Development and test environments must be network segmented from the rest of the cardholder data network. Use a firewall or Access Control Lists (ACL) on a Switch to achieve this separation. A separation of duties with staff is also essential for compliance. Staff with access to the development and test environments must not have any access to the production environment, and vice-versa.

The use of any cardholder data in development and test environments is never permitted, nor is test cardholder data ever permitted within production environments.

All changes to the application must adhere to a change control process, including an assessment of impact and functionality testing to verify that changes do not adversely affect security. A backout plan and formal management approval is also required for each change request.

6.5 Address common coding vulnerabilities in software-development processes as follows.

  • Train developers in secure coding techniques, including how to avoid common coding vulnerabilities, and understanding how sensitive data is handled in memory.

Requirement 6.5 requires developers to be trained in secure coding techniques that are relevant to the application coding languages used. The secure coding techniques must be based on industry best practices or standards, and must be documented by the organization to ensure that they are followed by developers. Developer training, which can either be conducted in-house or by a qualified third party, is deemed sufficient for PCI compliance once each developer is able to both identify and resolve all known common coding vulnerabilities.

Developers must be instructed to code applications to handle cardholder data in a PCI DSS-compliant manner. As an example, never store a security code (that is, CVV2) post payment authorization.

Developers should receive secure code training upon hire and at least annually. It is recommended to have developers sign an agreement or ideally pass an exam to demonstrate compliance with requirement 6.5. *Requirements 6.5.1 through 6.5.10 are directly based on the current OWASP Top Ten guidance. The OWASP Top Ten is regarded as industry best practice for secure application development. Requirements 6.5.1 to 6.5.10 are subject to change outside the PCI DSS three-year update cycle. When OWASP releases an updated top ten, be aware that PCI DSS requirements 6.5.1 to 6.5.10 instantly changes to reflect the latest best practice.

For details on meeting the OWASP Top Ten, review the article, "Scan your app to find and fix OWASP Top 10 2013 vulnerabilities." If the OWASP Top Ten is not a relevant security standard for the application developed, an alternative best practice or standard must be referenced instead, which addresses common coding vulnerabilities in the application technology used.

6.6 For public-facing web applications, address new threats and vulnerabilities on an ongoing basis and ensure these applications are protected against known attacks by either of the following methods.

  • Reviewing public-facing web applications via manual or automated application vulnerability security assessment tools or methods, at least annually and after any changes.
  • Installing an automated technical solution that detects and prevents web-based attacks (for example, a web-application firewall) in front of public-facing web applications, to continually check all traffic.

PCI Myth Busting: Requirement 6.6 cannot be met by vulnerability scanning

(Web) Applications that are (public) Internet facing, must be protected by either a Web Application Firewall (WAF) or by Web Application Vulnerability Scanning process.

Requirement 6.6 gives a binary choice of either conducting web application vulnerability scanning, or installing a web application firewall. Considering PCI requirements set the minimum level of security controls, it is common for organizations to opt for a "belt and braces" approach with their web application security, and adopt both of the 6.6 controls.

Web Application Firewall

A Web Application Firewall (WAF), which is either a dedicated appliance or a device plug-in, must not be confused with a traditional network layer firewall, which does not inspect traffic at the application layer. Development teams are not responsible for the deployment and management of WAFs, but WAFs do require application specialist expertise for WAF policies to be effective. For PCI compliance, WAFs must be proven to be effective at preventing common web application vulnerabilities that are listed in requirement 6.5.1 to 6.5.10. Those charged with developing WAF policies must have the relevant WAF expertise, and be independent from the development team.

Web application vulnerability scanning

AppScan Standard Trial

AppScan Standard Trial

IBM Security AppScan® is a leading application security testing suite that is designed to help manage vulnerability testing throughout the software development lifecycle. IBM Security AppScan automates vulnerability assessments and scans and tests for all common web application vulnerabilities that include SQL-injection, cross-site scripting, buffer overflow, and new flash/flex application and Web 2.0 exposure scans.

Appscan provides full coverage of the OWASP Top 10 for 2013. Our solution also includes support for industry-standard Transport Layer Security (TLS) protocol 1.2, and is compliant with Federal Information Publication Standard (FIPS) 140-2 and National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Special Publication (SP) 800-131a.

Download a trial version of AppScan Standard.

Web application vulnerability scanning should be part of the development lifecycle, and must occur at least annually, and after any changes in the application. Scanning can be manual or be a specialist tool led process, which as a minimum, must test the application for all the vulnerabilities that are listed under requirement 6.5. Where vulnerability scanning discovers application vulnerabilities, they must be mitigated and the web application rescanned, as only a clean scan report is acceptable as evidence of compliance.

IBM Security AppScan is a specialist Web Application Vulnerability Scanning tool that can be used to satisfy PCI DSS requirement 6.6. AppScan has pre-set default scanning policies that are able to vulnerability scan and report against both PCI DSS Version 3.0 requirements, and the OWASP 2013 Top Ten. AppScan scanning reports can be used as evidence of compliance with requirement 6.6.

6.7 Ensure that security policies and operational procedures for developing and maintaining secure systems and applications are documented, in use, and known to all affected parties.

The documentation of software development policies and procedures are required as requirements 6.1 through to 6.6. Requirement 6.7 requires these policies and procedures to be reviewed and maintained regularly. It is recommended to schedule an annual review to ensure all development documentation in requirement 6 is kept up-to-date; this process itself should also be documented.

Requirement 6.7 requires all development personnel, and any other staff and third parties that are subject to the development policies and procedures to be made fully aware of the requirements. Therefore, all documentation must be readily available to all personnel involved in application development, for instance, allowing staff to find and access the documentation by placing them onto the company intranet.

For assurance of compliance with 6.7, have all development staff review and sign an acknowledgment of their understanding of the development policies and procedures on at least an annual basis.

Finally, ensure any changes that are made to the policies and procedures are always clearly communicated to all staff.


Maintaining PCI DSS Compliance

PCI DSS compliance can be thought of as having two phases. The first phase is to reach a PCI DSS compliance state, while the second phase is to maintain a PCI DSS state of compliance. The second phase of staying PCI compliant often proves the most difficult to achieve, due to organizations not understanding the nature of PCI DSS, and general complacency. The secret to successfully maintaining compliance is to build processes that deliver a "business as usual" continued PCI-compliant state. Documenting and keeping records of process actions can be an inconvenience to staff, but they are a necessary evil to prevent complacency from creeping in, and to ensure PCI DSS compliance can always be verified and proven.

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