Many organizations approach a PCI audit with fear and trepidation. There are a lot of stories out there about how difficult, expensive and disruptive a PCI audit can be, but I want to see if I can add some balance to this view. I believe that when it comes to a PCI auditor it matters a great deal who you are working with. We just completed a PCI audit of our Alliance Key Manager for VMware solution and it gave me a whole new perspective and attitude about the audit process. Our PCI work was conducted by Coalfire, a security company that provides PCI audit services as well as audit services for the health and financial communities. Most of my remarks will reflect on the great experience we had with Coalfire and some of the lessons we learned.

As is true of financial auditors, the QSA auditor has a duty to accurately assess the security of your IT systems to insure that they meet or exceed the PCI Data Security Standards (PCI DSS) as outlined by the PCI Security Standards Council (PCI SSC). They have a professional responsibility to tell you where you meet the PCI DSS standard, and where you fall short. That “falling short” part is the thing most people dread hearing about.

I would suggest that this is exactly where a good security audit can be very helpful. We need to know where our security is weak, and we need to know how to fix the problems. A good QSA auditor will be more than a gatekeeper for the PCI security standards – they will be a trusted advisor on how to get things right from a security perspective. That practical advice is exactly what we need to protect our sensitive data.

Finding problems and fixing them is less expensive than suffering a data breach and then scrambling to fix the problems.

Another often overlooked benefit of having a good QSA auditor is that you get a get a trusted advisor in the process. It is one thing to have an auditor point out the faults in your security strategy, it is another to find an auditor who can advise you on the security strategies and potential solutions that can help you. While there must be an arms-length relationship between an auditor and a solution provider, your QSA auditor should be able to point you to a number of solutions that can help you mitigate security weaknesses. An experienced auditor is going to help you navigate towards a good solution.

It is hard to quantify the benefit of this type of guidance, but I personally think it is invaluable.

The take-away is that you should set high expectations for the relationship you develop with your QSA auditor. You can walk away from the experience with checks in boxes, or you can meet PCI compliance AND achieve a credible security strategy and trusted advisor. I found the latter in my relationship with Coalfire.

Patrick Townsend

Townsend Security