EMV Is No Silver Bullet for Payment Card Security

EMV isn't the savior of the payment card industry; it's just another set of problems, two security researchers demonstrated at Black Hat.

Black Hat

LAS VEGAS—In the wake of the Target data breach and other retail breaches like it, there has been a renewed call in the United States for a move to Chip and PIN credit cards, also known as EMV. At the Black Hat USA 2014 conference here, however, multiple researchers revealed that EMV isn't necessarily a panacea for all that ails the payment card industry.

In fact, Black Hat 2014 isn't even the first time researchers have revealed flaws in EMV. At the Black Hat 2012 event, a security researcher known only as Nils demonstrated flaws in payment card terminals. This year, Nils was back, once again demonstrating a similar set of flaws to the ones he first publicly disclosed two years ago.

Nils along with John Butler, now both at security firm MWR Labs, demonstrated before a large Black Hat audience how they could take over mobile payment terminals by using a malicious EMV card. Mobile payment terminals are small devices that can enable a merchant to take payments anywhere. The two researchers declined to name any of the vendor devices, as not all of the flaws are yet patched.

Butler explained that they were able to get root access to the mobile payment terminal and leverage the Bluetooth stack. Going a step further, the two researchers demonstrated how just like it was possible to attack a payment terminal with a malicious card in 2012, the same is true in 2014.

In a demonstration, Nils inserted a maliciously programmed EMV card into a mobile payment terminal to show what could be done. Instead of stealing anything, the two researchers instead loaded a game they built called chippypin, just to demonstrate they could do whatever they wanted to the device.

Butler noted that an attacker could potentially steal credit card information and turn the payment terminal into a card skimming device. Another possible attack is to change the programming, such that transactions are not properly validated by the credit card issuers. With such a programming change, all charges made on the terminal would default to being accepted, without any verification or actual communication with a financial institution.

Nils said they reported the various vulnerabilities on the mobile payment terminals to vendors in 2013, and many, though not all, have had fixes in place since April of 2014.

Ross Anderson, a researcher with Cambridge University in the U.K., also had some strong words about why EMV is not as secure as some might think.

"PIN entry devices are supposed to be tamper-proof," Anderson said.

He added that in 2008, it was revealed that PIN entry devices for EMV cards in the United Kingdom could in fact be tampered with. Anderson said he bought a bunch of devices on eBay and gave them to his students, who were able to break into them.

"We found out how to compromise the most popular PIN entry device in Britain using a couple of dollars of components, a few minutes of work and a paper clip," Anderson said.

Going a step further, Anderson said that research has revealed that it is possible to use a Chip and PIN card without knowing the PIN.

"It turns out that if you put a device between the Chip and PIN card and the PIN entry device, you can trick the device into thinking it was a chip and signature transaction." With a chip and signature transaction, an EMV card is used along with a signature, rather than a PIN.

Additionally, Anderson said that perhaps as many as half of all EMV terminals in use today do not generate random numbers properly.

"Without generating random numbers properly, a bad guy can manipulate transactions so they can capture transaction data for later use," Anderson said.

Overall, Anderson said that EMV is not a secure protocol; rather it is a toolkit that can enable security only if properly configured and deployed.

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and InternetNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner is an Internet consultant, strategist, and contributor to several leading IT business web sites.