I just read an amusing article on SearchSecurity.com: Heartland CIO is critical of First Data's credit card tokenization plan. In this article, Steven Elefant claims front-end tokenization solutions are less secure than end-to-end encryption solutions because front-end tokenization solutions depend on encryption. Huh? "Front-end tokenization, where you take a credit card number and send it up to a token server and then send it back to the terminal, is not good because you are totally exposed from the time you swipe the card until it gets to the token server," Elefant said in an interview with SearchSecurity.com. "If you are not encrypting with very strong crypto and hardware, you don't have security." I like the idea of end-to-end but let’s get some perspective. The end-to-end encryption technology that Elefant endorses uses unproven "hidden" or "format preserving" encryption. Could this be the case of the pot calling the kettle black?
If you're reading this trying to decide on end-to-end vs. front-end tokenization, here are some things to consider. Security should be thought of as layers. A solution that provides or allows for overlapping of end-to-end and tokenization would be the best approach. In lieu of that, true tokens (where the token value is in no way related to the card number other than as a reference) are not considered cardholder data and are not in scope of PCI whereas encrypted cardholder data is still considered cardholder data. Tokenization solutions may be adjusted to allow for repeatability (depending on provider) whereas end-to-end cannot and should not be able to provide repeatability – this comes into play when presenting recurring transactions are using cardholder data for loyalty lookups or risk analysis. End-to-end, in most cases, can work better in remote offline locations whereas most tokenization solutions require online access (but Shift4 does provide offline tokenization capabilities). Most end-to-end solutions use a "keys-to-the-kingdom" approach and therefore require tamper resistant hardware security modules; if these keys are ever breached, all the systems that store this "encrypted" data are vulnerable whereas true tokens are useless even if the token generation logic is known to the world.