What is PCI Compliance and Requirements of PCI DSS Compliance?

Data breaches and cyber-attacks have become a serious concern for companies and their customers in today's increasingly digital world. According to Gartner's cybersecurity report for 2021, the vast majority of executives, around 88%, now view cybersecurity as a major threat that can directly impact their business operations, rather than just a technical issue that falls under the IT department's responsibility.

This change in perspective highlights a growing recognition among business leaders of the potential consequences of cybercrime on their daily operations, such as financial losses, regulatory penalties, and even damage to their company's reputation and shareholder value. Here’s where the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) comes in.

It was created to help organizations protect sensitive information and prevent fraud. This article provides an overview of PCI DSS 3.2.1, explains who needs to comply with the PCI compliance requirements, and the 12 requirements of PCI DSS among other basics. 

So, by the end of this article, you should better understand PCI compliance and why it is essential for your organization.

What is PCI DSS?

The Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) is a set of security standards created by major payment card companies. These major payment card companies comprise; MasterCard, JCB, Visa, Discover, and American Express.

It was first introduced in 2004 as a joint effort between the major payment card companies to create a common set of security standards for organizations that accept payment cards. The standard was created in response to growing data breaches and fraud incidents involving payment card data.

The standard consists of 12 PCI compliance requirements designed to provide a framework for securing payment card data. These requirements cover various topics, such as network security, access control, and encryption.

By complying with the PCI DSS, organizations can reduce the risk of data breaches, protect their customer's sensitive information, and maintain the trust of their stakeholders. Since its introduction, the PCI DSS has undergone several revisions to address security landscape changes and provide more detailed guidance on specific requirements.

The current version is the result of an ongoing collaboration between the payment card companies and the PCI Security Standards Council (PCI SSC). On 31st March 2022, the PCI Security Standards Council released an updated version of the PCI Data Security Standards, version 4.0. It was the first revision since 2018.

The PCI DSS 3.2.1, released in May 2018, will still remain active for two years after version 4.0 is made available to the public though. This means organizations that accept payment cards have until 31st March 2024 to use PCI DSS 3.2.1 for assessment.

This grace period allows organizations enough time to get familiar with the updated version, plan for it, and implement the necessary changes. The PCI DSS 3.2.1 includes several updates and clarifications to the previous version (3.2), released in April 2016.

In addition to the main standard, the PCI SSC has created several supplemental standards and guidelines to help organizations comply with the PCI DSS. These include the Payment Application Data Security Standard (PA-DSS), which provides guidance on securing payment applications, and the Point-to-Point Encryption (P2PE) Standard, which provides guidance on securing cardholder data during transmission.

Who Should Adhere to the PCI Compliance Requirements?

As we've seen, the PCI DSS is a set of security standards created to protect payment card data and prevent fraud. But who exactly needs to comply with these standards? Here's a quick overview of what you need to know;

The PCI DSS applies to any organization that accepts payment cards, regardless of their size or the number of transactions they process. This includes online and brick-and-mortar businesses, as well as nonprofit organizations and government agencies that accept payment cards.

The level of PCI compliance required for different types of companies depends on the volume of payment card transactions they process each year. Based on this volume, the PCI DSS has established four levels of compliance, with level 1 being the highest and level 4 being the lowest.

Level 1 merchants are those that process over 6 million transactions per year, while level 2 merchants process between 1 million and 6 million transactions per year. Level 3 merchants process between 20,000 and 1 million e-commerce transactions annually, and level 4 merchants process fewer than 20,000 e-commerce transactions annually.

The level of PCI compliance required for each merchant level varies, with level 1 merchants being required to complete a full PCI DSS assessment and validation by a Qualified Security Assessor (QSA). Level 4 merchants can often self-assess using a simpler questionnaire.

The consequences of non-compliance with the PCI DSS can be severe in terms of financial penalties and damage to an organization's reputation. If an organization is found to be non-compliant with the PCI DSS, it may be subject to fines from the payment card companies and could also be required to pay for the costs associated with a data breach.

In addition to the financial costs, non-compliance can result in a loss of customer trust and damage an organization's reputation. Customers expect organizations to take the protection of their sensitive information seriously. A data breach or other security incident can significantly impact their perception of the organization.

PCI DSS Requirements

To achieve PCI compliance, companies must adhere to the 12 requirements outlined by the standard. These requirements are divided into six groups, each with a specific focus:

  • Group 1: Develop and Maintain Networks and Systems that are Secure

This group includes requirements 1 and 2, which focus on securing the network and all connected devices:

  1. Safeguard cardholder data by setting up and consistently updating your firewall configuration.
  2. Refrain from relying on pre-set vendor defaults for system passwords and other security parameters to ensure the safety of your data.

To implement these requirements, companies should ensure that their network and all connected devices are secure by configuring firewalls, changing default passwords, and implementing secure remote access protocols.

  • Group 2: Keep Cardholder Data Safe

Requirements 3 through 5 focus on the protection of cardholder data:

  1. Safeguard the confidential cardholder data that is stored within your systems, and ensure that it is protected from unauthorized access at all times.
  2. Utilize encryption techniques to secure the transmission of cardholder data when it is being sent across open or public networks so that it cannot be intercepted by cybercriminals or other unauthorized parties.
  3. Implement robust security measures to defend your systems against malware and other malicious software, and ensure that your antivirus software is updated on a regular basis to provide maximum protection.

To meet these requirements, companies should ensure adequate security measures to protect stored cardholder data, such as encryption and access controls. They should also use encryption to protect cardholder data during transmission and regularly update antivirus software to protect against malware.

  • Group 3: Establish and Maintain a Comprehensive Vulnerability Management Program

Requirements 6 and 7 focus on maintaining a vulnerability management program:

  1. Keep systems and applications secure by adhering to best security practices and standards.
  2. Identify and correct vulnerabilities through scans.

Companies should regularly test and monitor their systems and applications for vulnerabilities to implement these requirements. They should also ensure that any identified vulnerabilities are promptly corrected.

  • Group 4: Put in Place Robust Access Control Measures

Requirements 8 through 10 are centered on access control measures:

  1. Verify the identity and authorize access to all system components.
  2. Limit the entry of unauthorized personnel to areas containing cardholder data.
  3. Monitor and record all activity related to cardholder data and network resources.

To meet these requirements, companies should implement measures to identify and authenticate all users who access system components and restrict physical access to cardholder data. They should also track and monitor all access to cardholder data.

  • Group 5: Frequently Monitor and Evaluate your Networks through Testing

Requirements 11 and 12 are focused on regular monitoring and testing of networks:

  1. Conduct frequent and thorough assessments of security protocols and procedures to ensure their effectiveness and efficiency.
  2. Establish and adhere to a comprehensive policy that outlines the guidelines for maintaining the confidentiality and integrity of sensitive information among employees and contractors.

To meet these PCI compliance requirements, companies should regularly test their security systems and processes to ensure they function correctly. They should also maintain a policy that outlines information security practices for employees and contractors and ensure that all staff are aware of and adhere to this policy.

Implementing SSL

In addition to the 12 requirements outlined by the PCI DSS, it is important for companies to secure their network traffic by implementing SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) protocols. SSL is a cryptographic protocol that provides secure communications over the internet.

It encrypts data as it is transmitted between a web server and a web browser, preventing unauthorized access to the information. An EV SSL certificate is an excellent option for companies that want to ensure the highest level of security for their online transactions. An EV SSL certificate verifies the company's identity and provides customers with an added layer of confidence when making purchases online.

Closing Thoughts

Complying with PCI DSS is a wise investment for businesses that accept payment cards. It's a proactive approach that can protect against costly data breaches, build trust with customers, and ensure long-term success in the competitive landscape of digital commerce.

While the compliance process can seem daunting, following best practices can help make the process more manageable. Also, partnering with a trusted payment processor and SSL provider can further aid in achieving compliance.

In the end, the benefits of PCI DSS compliance far outweigh any potential costs or difficulties. PCI compliance can help protect against the devastating consequences of data breaches and cyber attacks, including reputational harm, loss of customer trust, and financial losses. By prioritizing PCI DSS compliance, businesses can ensure a secure and seamless payment card processing experience for their customers while protecting their own interests.

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