As we mentioned in our earlier Alert, the time for issuance of secure payment cards, both credit and debit, may be close at hand. On July 29, 2014, the Merchant Advisory Group, as well as a disparate group of retail industries, including grocers, restaurants, and convenience stores1, issued a joint statement calling for an "open process for the creation of security standards to better protect U.S. consumers and businesses from cyber criminal activity," including adoption of "tokenization" throughout the U.S. payment system.

The letter recognizes the three locations or instances where confidential retail customer information may be compromised: 1) where the payment card is swiped, or the card number entered, 2) where the card information is stored, and 3) during transmittal.

Tokenization refers to the replacement of sensitive customer data with a unique "token," significantly increasing the security of the customer’s confidential information.  A customer swipes or presents the payment card in typical fashion.  The retailer then transmits the customer's data to its payment processor, where it is encrypted.  The payment processor then sends a token back to the retailer containing the transaction information, where it is unencrypted.  The merchant can use the unencrypted information to track the transaction in its payment system.  However, since the confidential payment information has been removed, a breach of the retailer's system would not allow the hacker to access the customer's financial information.  Meanwhile, the entire process is invisible to the customer.2

Because tokenization typically does not require significant changes in a retailer's payment acceptance systems, some retailers have already adopted the process.  However, the retailers' July 29th statement recognized that widespread use may require the creation of a standard, open platform usable by all merchants, card issuers, and payment processors (including banks).  As the repository of the confidential customer data, it is the payment processors who bear the biggest burden -- and highest data breach risk -- by extensive adoption of tokenization.  Nevertheless, in light of several very recent high-profile retail data breaches (e.g., Target, Michael’s, eBay), retailers now recognize that ensuring the confidentiality of customer financial data has become a critical aspect of their business standards and strategy, if not even survival.