What Is PCI Compliance?
The PCI standards apply to all e-commerce businesses, regardless of size or sales volume.
Failure to remain compliant with PCI standards can result in fines, increased card processing fees, or suspension of credit card processing privileges.
Who’s Responsible for PCI Compliance?
Responsibility for achieving and maintaining PCI compliance is shared equally by merchants, web developers, and web-hosting service providers.
Each has a critical role to play in PCI compliance, though ultimately it falls to the merchant to ensure that their website and web-hosting provider meets the approved industry standards.
How do Businesses Achieve PCI Compliance?
In order to achieve PCI compliance businesses must undergo a rigorous vetting process.
The process consists of:
- Either a quarterly automated scan of their website and hosted servers by an authorized scanning vendor
- Or, alternatively, there’s also an annual self-assessment questionnaire as prepared by the PCI Security Standards Council.
Who Should Use the PCI Compliance Questionnaire?
The self-assessment questionnaire is more appropriate for small businesses who don’t have the resources to hire outside assessors to evaluate a firm’s compliance with the PCI standards.
Ideally, businesses can spot and resolve security issues before a breach happens by working through the questionnaire.
What are the Requirements for Achieving PCI Compliance?
According to the PCI Security Standards Council, there are 12 requirements (PDF) that must be met in order to achieve PCI compliance.
These can be broken down into six basic categories or security goals (see table below).
Who Is Responsible for Maintaining Compliance?
Some of these requirements are the responsibility of web-hosting providers, while others are the responsibility of merchants and their web developers and site designers.
However, in the final analysis, it always falls to the merchant to ensure that their hosting service, website developer, and third-party software vendors are PCI compliant.
Compliance Security Goals
The goals and requirements necessary to achieve PCI compliance include the following categories, which I’ve explained below.
|Category||Responsible Party||Security Goals|
|Building and Maintaining a Secure Network||Largely the responsibility of the web-hosting provider.||This category addresses two key security issues:
|Protecting Cardholder Data||This is a shared responsibility, though the web-hosting provider should be at the forefront of the secured storage and transmission of all sensitive data.||The protection of cardholder data addresses the following points:
|Maintaining a Vulnerability Management Program||Applies primarily to web-hosting service providers, though attention to security vulnerabilities should also command the attention of merchants and their web development team.||The PCI-SSC outlines two basic requirements necessary to meet this security goal:
|Implementing Strong Access Control Measures||This is one aspect of PCI compliance that is largely the responsibility of the business owner and their web development team as it addresses data security on a more localized level.||The goals in this category include:
|Regularly Monitor and Test Networks||A shared responsibility between web-hosting providers and the merchant’s web development team.||Routine monitoring and testing are necessary to verify and maintain network security.
|Maintaining an Information Security Policy||This applies to both web-hosting services and web developers.||They should have well-defined security policies in place that outline operational security procedures, acceptable uses of technology, basic administrative tasks and safeguards, and detailed risk analysis data.|
So what does PCI compliance have to do with the web host?
Since your e-commerce site is going to handle transactions, hosting companies have an interest in keeping personal and financial information secure. Would you want to do business with a hosting company that had repeatedly suffered security breaches?
HTTP and SSL Encryption
One of the major issues surrounding processing credit card payments is keeping the connection between a user and a merchant encrypted. Over the web, this is done through the use of HTTPS and SSL encryption.
With HTTPS, an attacker can’t see the credit card number or the security number on the card.
Many providers offer SSL certificates as part of their hosting plans. These certificates prove that the people behind the website are exactly who they say they are. You can see them when you click on the green padlock on an HTTPS site in the URL bar.
End-To-End Payment Protection
Having an SSL certificate is not enough to achieve PCI compliance. The entire chain of payment processing, going from card handling to the physical servers themselves, has to be PCI-DSS compliant.
Physical Access Protections
Security also means physical security. A random person shouldn’t be able to walk into a data center and start messing with one of the server racks.
Larger hosts have secure datacenters, where the server racks are kept under lock and key. Many of them have strict rules enforced by measures like key cards on who can be in a data center at all.
Other Security Considerations
Besides PCI-DSS, depending on the business you’re in, you have to keep up with other security and privacy standards and laws.
For example, if you’re in the US and you deal with health data in any way, you’re subject to HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act).
You have to make sure that this data won’t fall into the wrong hands by employees disclosing it or having data left on a laptop somewhere where’s it’s stolen.
ALERT: Don’t rely on a web host to know which security requirements are important for the industry that you serve.
The moral of the story is that for all the standards, laws, technology, and encryption, the human element is still the weakest link in security.
While implementing PCI-DSS, you should train your employees that they have to be vigilant about security and can’t just rely on the software and web hosting to keep your data integrity safe.
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How to Choose a PCI-Compliant Hosting Service
Choosing a PCI compliant web-hosting service can often be a challenging proposition.
While some web-hosting providers clearly advertise PCI compliance as a marketable feature, many web-hosting providers are less forthcoming.
Here are the steps involved in searching for a web host that offers PCI compliance:
- If a host’s plans don’t specify compliance, ask.
- If your budget requires a cheap shared hosting plan, see if the host offers payment gateways.
- Consider a large hosting company.
- Consider site builders with e-commerce options.
- Consider paying a bit more for hosting.
Let’s go into a bit more detail on each of these steps.
When in Doubt, Ask Web Hosts About PCI Compliance
It is often necessary for merchants to contact potential hosting firms directly in order verify if PCI compliant hosting plans are available and if they meet their business’ operational and budgetary demands.
Use a Payment Gateway, If Necessary
Smaller business operations, particularly those relying on budget-priced shared hosting plans, may find it necessary to partner with a third-party payment gateway service (such as PayPal) in order to ensure PCI compliance.
Since most shared hosting plans do not deliver the heightened security features necessary to meet PCI standards, you might want to take advantage of e-commerce features that their hosts offer.
Bigger Hosts Are A Good Choice for PCI Compliance
The choice of hosting provider also affects PCI compliance. Larger providers will have more resources to ensure Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI-DSS) compliance.
Larger hosting providers are more likely to:
- Offer SSL certificates,
- Keep up with software updates, and
- Either perform the self-assessment questionnaires themselves or
- Can afford the quarterly assessment.
Look for E-Commerce Features and Site Builders
Some of these hosts offer payment processing and e-commerce features, often through site builders.
These can provide attractive alternatives for businesses to rolling their own PCI-compliant payment processing systems.
Consider Higher-Tier Hosting Plans
In most cases, business owners will need to consider VPS, Cloud, or dedicated server hosting plans in order to achieve full and independent PCI compliance as outlined by the Payment Card Industry Security Standards Council (PCI-SSC).
“As we do more and more of our business online, and as criminals realize the value of the data that organizations are protecting, we’re seeing more big-name breaches, more high-profile breaches,” -Mark Nunnikhoven, VP Cloud Research, Trend Micro, in an interview with CNN.
My Picks for the Best PCI-Compliant Hosts
After researching PCI compliance, I prepared 3 recommendations for you to explore. Each host listed here is PCI-compliant.
SiteGround’s PCI information page, via WhoIsHostingThis.com
For PCI-compliant hosting, we recommend SiteGround.
While they have cheap shared hosting, their lower tiers are not appropriate for e-commerce. Their higher tiers — like the GoGeek plan — achieve PCI compliance through secure datacenters.
Having a dedicated IP address is necessary for PCI compliance.
Their other dedicated servers, cloud hosting, and VPS can also be made PCI-compliant.
InMotion’s PCI information page, via WhoIsHostingThis.com
InMotion is also a good choice for e-commerce.
They offer 1-click e-commerce on their hosting plans via PrestaShop and OpenCart.
They also include security features like SSL certificates, automatic backups, and DDoS protection.
InMotion advises clients interested in PCI compliance to opt for VPS plans or dedicated plans.
The host will assist you in making any necessary customizations to meet requirements of a PCI compliance scan.
InMotion offers advice on how to pass PCI compliance in its knowledge base.
Liquid Web’s PCI information page, via WhoIsHostingThis.com
Liquid Web is yet another hosting provider that offers advice on achieving PCI compliance but leans on the client to ensure that they are certified.
This means passing the self-assessment questionnaire.
Liquid Web offers dedicated servers, cloud VPS, dedicated cloud, as well as more advanced solutions.
These offer a lot more control than shared hosting and are good choices for running PCI-compliant sites.
Other features in E-commerce
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PCI Compliant Frequently Asked Questions
- What Is PCI?
PCI-DSS is an acronym for Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard, which is a set of security standards designed to ensure that all merchants that accept, process, or transmit credit card information maintain a secure data environment.
- How Does PCI Compliance impact my business?
All businesses that accept credit or debit cards as payment are required to be compliant with the PCI security standards. Smaller online retailers can achieve PCI compliance by utilizing PCI compliant shopping cart applications or payment gateways. Larger operations, typically processing in excess of 20,000 credit card transactions per year, must meet specific compliance validation guidelines regarding their web servers and website design and payment processing applications.
- How do I know if my business is PCI compliant?
If your business stores, transmits, or otherwise processes credit card data you must be PCI compliant. Business owners are required to complete an annual self assessment demonstrating that their operation meets the PCI security standards. Larger enterprises must also undergo a quarterly automated scan of their websites and servers to verify compliance. These scans must be performed by an authorized scanning vendor.
- Does an SSL Certificate make my business PCI compliant?
No. SSL certificates do provide a basic level of customer security and assurance, but they do not secure a web server from potential malicious attacks.
- What if my website is not PCI compliant?
Businesses that fail to achieve compliance may be subject to punitive actions from credit card issuing companies. These actions can range from warnings and fines to the revocation of the business’ ability to process credit or debit card transactions.
- What if I refuse to comply with PCI standards?
PCI-DSS is not a law, merely a set of industry standards created by the major credit card brands. However, merchants that fail to comply with PCI-DSS may be subject to fines, increased processing fees, card replacement costs, forensic audits, and brand damage in the event of a breach or data compromise.