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Target confirms customer PINs were taken in breach, but says data is safe

But the PINs were encrypted and therefore should be inaccessible to hackers, according to the retailer

Target has confirmed that hackers obtained customer debit card PINs (personal identification numbers) in the massive data breach suffered by the retailer during the busy holiday shopping season, but says customers should be safe, as the numbers were encrypted.

Some 40 million customer debit and credit cards were affected by the breach, but until now it wasn't clear that PINs were part of the hackers' massive haul.

"While we previously shared that encrypted data was obtained, this morning through additional forensics work we were able to confirm that strongly encrypted PIN data was removed," Target said in a statement on its website Friday. "We remain confident that PIN numbers are safe and secure. The PIN information was fully encrypted at the keypad, remained encrypted within our system, and remained encrypted when it was removed from our systems."

When Target customers use their debit cards, the PIN is secured with Triple DES encryption at the checkout keypads, according to the statement. "Target does not have access to nor does it store the encryption key within our system," it adds. "The PIN information is encrypted within Targets systems and can only be decrypted when it is received by our external, independent payment processor. What this means is that the 'key' necessary to decrypt that data has never existed within Targets system and could not have been taken during this incident."

The company didn't reveal how many PINs were taken, or whether it even knows the total at this point in its probe.

Target is still in the early stages of its investigation into the breach, according to Friday's statement. The company previously said it was working alongside the U.S. Secret Service and Department of Justice on the investigation.

U.S. lawmakers have called for an immediate investigation into Target's security practices. The retailer has said customers will not be forced to pay for any fraudulent charges on their card, and are also eligible to receive credit monitoring at no charge.

Chris Kanaracus covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Chris' email address is Chris_Kanaracus@idg.com

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1 Comment

Gilad Parann-Nissany

1

Target claims there is a silver lining in all this, the 'glass half full': since the master key for the encryption of the credit card pins was separate from the breached Target system, the bad guys cannot unencrypt those pins. Target is therefore able to claim a kind of 'Safe Harbor' claim: that the key to decrypt the data could not have been taken, and "The most important thing for our guests to know is that their debit card accounts have not been compromised due to the encrypted PIN numbers being taken."

Safe Harbor is a respectable concept with some clear technologies emerging to enable it, for both larger companies and (using cloud technology) for SMEs. For example, see http://www.porticor.com/2013/12/target-claims-strong-encryption-saves-neck

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