Filed Under: Banking and Finance, Mobile Payments, Payment systems, Payments, Privacy and security, Retail

The Challenge of Delivering mPOS Services through Off-The-Shelf Mobile Devices

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The last few months have been exciting if, like Consult Hyperion, you are attracted by the mobile POS (mPOS) sector. We’ve seen significant announcements from Mastercard and Worldpay and heard interesting rumours about the current work within the PCI Security Council, suggesting that the use of off-the-shelf mobile devices as card acceptance devices is likely to happen in the near future.

Targeted at small to medium sized and mobile merchants who do most of their business in cash or cheques, but have the occasional customer who prefers to transact by card, the mPOS dongle (card reading device) has been seen by these merchants as their first venture into the “expensive” world of credit and debit cards. However, the cost of the dongle and the power required to run it are often cited as barriers to the adoption of mPOS services.

Magnetic stripe dongles are effectively given away; their cost refunded through reductions in the fees levied against the initial transactions; their power derived from the phone, when inserted in the audio port. Chip & PIN dongles are more complex and so more expensive requiring their own power supply or battery. The business case to subsidize the additional cost of these devices through reductions in transaction fees is more challenging.

The higher cost and more power-hungry elements of a Chip & PIN dongle are the display and keypad. If we can replace these components with the capabilities of an off-the-shelf smartphone, can we bring down the cost and power requirements of the Chip & PIN dongle closer to that of the magnetic stripe version? If we can deliver the service entirely through a mobile application, can we simplify our distribution channels? These are the sort of questions that get the team at Consult Hyperion excited as they present big information security challenges, which we like.

Generic, off-the-shelf mobile devices have none of the physical and electronic countermeasures designed into a payment terminal to secure the personal and account information in the payment transaction. Nor do they have the specific assets required by the payment scheme such as the secure PIN entry capabilities. Equally, the Acquirer doesn’t have any control over the other applications loaded onto the phone or tablet, which could include malware designed to impact the performance of their mPOS service or monitor any communications to or from it.

So, the challenge is; can we develop applications for generic off-the-shelf mobile devices that deliver, as far as practical, similar levels of security to the hardware in the payment terminal, whilst withstanding repeated attack from hackers interested in capturing assets that they could use to attack the payment schemes’ international networks?

There are many companies delivering solutions which could protect the mPOS application against some of these threats and/or give the Acquirer a level of assurance about the identity of the individuals involved in the transaction. However, no one solution is likely to deliver against all of the PCI’s security standards, should they be published, and not every solution works on every mobile device.

So, the team designing your mPOS solution for off-the-shelf mobile devices must understand in detail the threats to which the application will be exposed, the most cost-effective countermeasures against those threats, how they work together and how they need to evolve in response to new fraudulent attacks. Experience would suggest that they will need to understand in detail the operation of the EMV payment application, transaction security and the smartphone operating system, whilst having considerable experience of implementing the best-of-breed information security tools.

People with such experience are few and far between. Many are my friends and colleagues, which makes my job interesting, exciting and rewarding. It looks like a busy end to the year!

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