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Web firewalls trumping other options as PCI deadline nears

Advantage over appsec approach mainly one of convenience

June 27, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Companies scrambling to comply with a Web application security requirement due to take effect next week appear to be heavily favoring the use of Web firewall technologies over the other options that are available under the mandate, according to analysts.

The mandate from the major credit card companies is the latest adjustment to the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS). Essentially, it requires all entities accepting payment card transactions to implement new security controls for protecting their Web applications. The controls have been a recommended best practice for nearly two years now, but starting June 30, they will become a mandatory requirement under PCI -- especially for so-called Level 1 companies that handle more than 6 million payment card transactions a year.

Under the requirement (PCI Section 6.6), merchants can choose to implement a specialized firewall to protect their Web applications, or to perform an automated or manual application code review and fix any flaws found. Companies also have the option of performing either a manual or an automated vulnerability assessment scan of their Web application environment, fixing any problems that are discovered during that process.

The 6.6 requirement is designed to address growing concerns about vulnerable Web applications being exploited by malicious attackers to compromise payment data. The controls are supposed to protect Web applications from common threats like SQL Injection attacks, buffer overflows and cross-site scripting vulnerabilities.

As with almost every other major PCI deadline so far, though, few companies are expected to be fully compliant with the PCI 6.6 requirement come June 30. But analysts say the companies that are compliant or heading in that direction appear to be favoring the Web firewall option.

For instance, excess-inventory retailer chose to install a Web application firewall from Breach Security Inc. rather than take any of the other options.

Going that route was considerably cheaper than doing an application code review, said Bear Terburg, manager of network engineering at

"We deploy code every other week. The ongoing effort of doing code reviews would add another layer of costs," compared with a Web application firewall, Terburg said. Besides, he added, the company is already doing vulnerability scans, and adding Web application firewall technology provides another layer of protection.

Harvard Medical School has Web sites that process credit card information. The school is in the process of implementing a Web firewall technology from security vendor Third Brigade to deal with online security threats.

The tool was "much easier" to implement that any of the other compliance options available under PCI 6.6, said John Halamka, CIO at Harvard Medical School. "The effort of going through application code every time a new vulnerability is discovered would be a far more daunting task." The firewall also makes ongoing recommendations for tuning or adding new signatures when a new vulnerability is discovered or to block out specific Web threats, he said.

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