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Apple outsmarts the thieves

Apple outsmarts the thieves

The Apple Pay approach to mobile payment turns the security conundrum upside down by keeping data out of thief-magnet servers.

Security is not always about creating a stronger deadbolt or a more protective firewall. Sometimes it's about understanding what motivates potential attackers and using that knowledge to make your valuables look less attractive, either directly or by comparison. It's this more sophisticated approach that Apple is using with its newest devices and software.

If you wanted to secure a house, these psychological tactics might include leaving an old wreck of a car in the driveway, which would suggest that there's little of value to be found in the house. Or you might volunteer to help spruce up your neighbor's house, making it look like a more profitable theft target than yours. (Hey, I didn't say that these were necessarily ethical examples.)

In enterprise IT, the idea is the same. Protecting your content against a brute-force attack is essential, but doing what you can to make thieves look elsewhere is potentially an even better strategy. When Apple introduced Apple Pay this month, it demonstrated an understanding of both tactics.

Apple Pay does something that turns the security conundrum upside down. The problem has been that enterprises, as self-centered profit seekers, are uninterested in spending a lot of money to improve security for all or to shut down gangs of cyberthieves. All they want to do is make the thieves stop attacking them. If Apple Pay and other payment systems using the same model become widely adopted, that would become less of an issue, because enterprises would look like less appealing targets. (More on this later.)

Something else that Apple did, perhaps only as a way to improve usability, also boosts security. With every earlier NFC payment app, the shopper had to start the process by launching that app. To speed things along, Apple bypassed that step and allowed Apple Pay to do its magic solely by proximity to the signal and by the shopper putting a finger on the phone's biometric scanner. That is certainly faster and easier, but that fingerprint scan is also more secure than the traditional use of a signature or a PIN. Yes, I know that the fingerprint reader is full of security holes -- there are various methods for copying a fingerprint from a stolen phone and using it to trick the scanner into authenticating incorrectly -- but despite that, it is an order of magnitude more secure than signature and PIN. (It should be noted that Apple has paid attention to the criticism. The latest version of its biometric scan makes better use of methods for detecting live tissue.)

Let's not attack Apple's fingerprint scanner for being less than perfectly secure when signatures offer pretty much zero protection, and PIN has plenty of problems of its own. Cashiers are hardly experts in handwriting recognition, and in any case it's been decades since retailers urged them to compare signatures with the one on the card. And most PIN deployments in the U.S. -- including Apple's default -- are four digits, which is woefully inadequate. It is quite weak for online usage, given the relative ease of cracking a four-digit code, and it's far from foolproof in-store, where the criminal technique of shoulder surfing is common -- the thief just looks over someone's shoulder and learns the PIN by watching it get entered.

So I have to give a thumb up to fingerprint scanning. But even better is that Apple is storing payment-card data in the iPhone's Secure Element, which is simply a chip in the phone. It shouldn't be very easy to access and, even if that happens, it's simply a token that leads to encrypted data. But here's the really good part: The payment data is not stored on Apple servers or held by the retailer. This is how Apple eliminates the problem of profit-oriented retailers not working together to stop data breaches. When retailers are no longer in possession of payment data, they cease being the target.

Ah, when that happens; there's the rub. Apple Pay is showing the way out of some sticky security problems, but its debut (probably by the end of October) doesn't eliminate the problem. I'd calculate that this coming holiday season, 99.999% of all merchant transactions won't use Apple Pay. It's going to be a very long time before that figure gets whittled down significantly.

It will help if other mobile-payment players see the wisdom of this approach and emulate it. When enough payments are made this way, so that card data stored is on personal devices and not conglomerated on big enterprise server systems, ROI goes out the window for cyberthieves. They need to access huge numbers of cards, ideally tens of millions or better. That's because cards age out quickly, and once a breach is discovered, that aging-out is greatly accelerated. Cyberthieves are not going to see much percentage in hacking tens of millions of phones to get that kind of data quantity.

I know that the mass collection of payment card data won't be eliminated by the Apple Pay model, even if it's a huge success. Card issuers are still going to retain those sorts of records. But in general, financial operations have better security than retailers, and they also have more incentive to promote better security for all.

You've gotta give credit to Apple. It didn't just use a better deadbolt. It outthought the thief by better understanding him.

Evan Schuman has covered IT issues for a lot longer than he'll ever admit. The founding editor of retail technology site StorefrontBacktalk, he's been a columnist for CBSNews.com, RetailWeek and eWeek. Evan can be reached at eschuman@thecontentfirm.com and he can be followed at twitter.com/eschuman. Look for his column every other Tuesday.

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