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credit card conventional wisdom

I've been seeing a particular meme-nugget of conventional wisdom
circulating in reference to credit cards that I'd like to debunk.
(recently showed up in the WSJ, "Boardwatch" magazine editorial
column, etc). these legends and thinkings are starting to annoy
me to the point of becoming a pet peeve.

the argument goes like this: secure credit card number uploading
schemes (such as in Netscape) are not important on the internet because 
credit card numbers are already insecure. you give them to low-wage
workers all the time who might steal the number from you anyway.

there are a lot of fallacies with this. I find this to be a key
cypherpunk issue, and I hope others will agree to the point of
trying to attack this fallacy through letters to the editor,
debates, etc., because it seems to rationalize weak security.

- 1st point: yes, you do give credit cards to low wage workers
in businesses, but this is not directly parallel to sending a
credit card over the internet. the fuzzy thinking goes like
this: "credit card numbers are already not secure. therefore, trying to
secure them is frivolous". this is patently ridiculous on the
face of it. it's circular reasoning. credit card numbers could
become more secure if all businesses made them more secure.
getting all businesses to make them secure is part of the battle.
raising consciousness on the issue is part of the battle. saying,
"there is no point" is a copout imho.

- the insecurity of sending a card over the net could be far better
or worse than that of handing it to an individual. 1st, when you
send a number over the net, potentially anyone (including people other
than the destination business) could spy on it. 
when you give it to someone in a company, only that representative
(who would be trusted by the company)
has access to it. or, alternately, maybe no one could *ever* see
your card sent over the internet, including workers at the end
site, who never deal with the numbers directly. such a system
is possible and may become the norm. but not if shallow-thinking 
people can't imagine it as possible.

- it is not impossible to have cards that don't have numbers but
instead have magnetic stripes, and the only way for them to work
is to be physically scanned. this would reduce fraud but would also
reduce the convenience of sending numbers over the phone (mail
order) for example. I'm not saying all cards should be this way,
but it might make sense for some people to get a "scan only card"
that cannot be used unless physically scanned. the point is that
there are variations on the credit card theme that make them more
secure, and there's a bit of a hurdle in getting Joe Sixpack to
realize this, and realize it's desirable.

- the boardwatch magazine editor argued that uploading credit card numbers
over the internet in a secure fashion is a "non problem" because
credit cards are already insecure. have you ever heard of PROGRESS,
mr. bonehead? if the net began to make credit transactions more
secure, perhaps that would create a momentum in which other offline
businesses might become more strict or careful about credit card

- credit card fraud is absolutely enormous in this country. and there
are not really any very strong safeguards against it except a 
lot of "security through obscurity" (of credit card numbers). *everyone*
pays the cost of this horrible fraud rate through increased
transaction charges, higher interest rates, etc.  just because you
may not see it itemized on your credit card bill, does not mean you
are not paying for it. (in much the same way that a sort of
"shoplifting tax" is reflected in the cost of all merchandise).

- the internet may eventually become completely secure. arguing that
"we don't need security on the internet because we don't have it in
the business world of daily credit card use, and they get along fine"
is ridiculously simplistic and specious. the fact is that businesses
do *not* really like many aspects of credit cards: low security,
overhead costs, cost of interface devices to the credit card companies,
etc.  all these negative ingredients could be improved in cyberspace.
but it won't happen if every time a new superior system comes along,
someone argues, "but there's nothing wrong with what we have now!!!"
when this is quite obviously mistaken to anyone with any minimal 
background& understanding in the area. furthermore, consumers are
somewhat notorious for not really knowing what they want, and sometimes
arguing against something they would buy or use in the future.


I'm continually amazed at how often security issues are mixed up
in people's brains and reasoning. there are a lot of fallacies that
work their way into respectable writing by reputable people
that tend to mirror circular
reasoning such as, "if something is insecure already, it makes no
point to try to make a piece of it more secure".  security is sometimes won
slowly in increments, in which one could argue against each increment
as useless or inconsequential, but the end result could lead to 
far better security. furthermore, there are a lot of different kinds
of security weaknesses-- there is not a simple black-and-white 
measurement of "secure" vs. "insecure" but a lot of intermediate

attempts to get secure credit card number transfer on the internet
are not an end in themselves. they are the first steps toward an 
entirely new transaction system. those who see a single step and
criticize it as feeble in the context of past systems
are missing the point and apparently can't think past the present 
nanosecond of their lives.