What to Expect From a PCI Compliance Risk Assessment

June 26, 2024

Data breaches are among modern companies’ worst nightmares. They can spell disaster for businesses and lead to permanent damage, both financially and in terms of reputation. Thankfully, there’s a solid way to determine your readiness to defend against threats like these: a PCI compliance risk assessment. 

Here’s what to know about PCI assessments and how you can get the most out of the process.

What is a PCI Compliance Risk Assessment?

PCI compliance risk assessment

PCI assessments evaluate a company’s adherence to the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS). Established by major credit card companies, this standard is designed to protect cardholder data and promote the secure handling of sensitive payment information. 

These assessments are important for several reasons. First and foremost, they reduce the risk of data breaches. They also boost company trust and can help you avoid penalties. For many organizations, this is more than enough to take PCI assessments seriously. 

How Does it Work?

A PCI risk assessment involves several steps.

Step 1: Defining the Assessment Scope

The process starts by identifying all system components, processes, and personnel involved in cardholder data management. The purpose of this step is to create boundaries that include all relevant areas. 

It requires an inventory of all the hardware, software, network devices, and applications within the data environment. Data mapping is also performed at this stage—a process for understanding how cardholder data moves through the pipeline.

Don’t make the mistake of overlooking this step. Scoping really sets the stage for identifying vulnerabilities and determining where controls need to be implemented.

Step 2: Identifying Threats and Vulnerabilities

Now comes the fun part of a PCI compliance risk assessment. Here, businesses look to find potential risks, threats, and vulnerabilities within the cardholder data environment. They conduct a thorough examination of the system to uncover vulnerabilities that could be exploited by nefarious parties. Common findings include:

  • Malware
  • Phishing
  • Insider threats
  • Outdated software
  • Weak passwords

For this phase of the PCI compliance risk assessment, businesses often use tools like vulnerability scanners and penetration testing to identify problems. By understanding threats and weaknesses, companies can take appropriate action to address them.

Step 3: Assessing Security Controls

A PCI assessment is the perfect time to evaluate your current security controls. You might look at existing policies and procedures to determine their effectiveness in combating cyber threats. Whatever tools and policies you use should comply with PCI DSS requirements. Be sure to review:

  • Encryption methods
  • Access controls
  • Network security measures
  • Incident response protocols

Think about the threats you identified in the previous step. Realistically, how prepared are your controls to handle them? This should give you an idea of whether or not you need a complete overhaul. 

Step 4: Evaluating Risk Levels

Not all threats pose the same level of risk, and so it’s important to assess each vulnerability. Many businesses use ranking scales or risk matrices to classify risks based on severity and probability. 

High-risk areas should be dealt with promptly, while low-risk threats can be addressed over time. By prioritizing threats this way, you can jump right on areas that require immediate attention. This is key to safeguarding cardholder data. 

Step 5: Making a Risk Mitigation Plan

part of a PCI compliance risk assessment is creating a risk mitigation plan.

It’s always important to plan, whether you’re implementing a new tool or figuring out how to manage risk. Your risk mitigation strategy should outline the risks identified in the previous steps and detail specific actions and timelines for each control measure.

Action steps might include upgrading software and improving encryption protocols. For more advanced systems, you can upgrade access controls to ensure only authorized parties get access to certain data. 

Step 6: Updating Risk Mitigation Processes

With a solid plan in place, you can proceed to implementing the desired measures. Follow your plan as closely as possible, working with internal and external stakeholders as necessary to strengthen security controls.

For some businesses, this process is relatively straightforward—there’s not much to update. However, if you’ve identified major risks, you may need to make more drastic changes. There isn’t a standard timeline for this step, as so much depends on your mitigation strategy and the specific threats you’re dealing with.

Step 7: Monitoring and Preparing for Auditing

At this point in the PCI compliance risk assessment, you’re done with most of the heavy lifting, but you still need to prepare for the most important part: auditing. Assess and review your process prior to the audit. Make note of any challenges, as well as any new risks or threats that emerge. Train your employees on compliance best practices.

Be sure to document your findings and actions. This provides a clear record of your compliance efforts, demonstrating your accountability and commitment to compliance. Finally, you’re ready to schedule an audit with a Qualified Security Assessor (QSA). 

What Happens During the Audit?

What happens during PCI compliance risk assessment?

The audit process begins with a meeting to discuss the scope and objectives. The QSA reviews documentation and policies around cardholder security data. For example, they might look at system configurations to see that you have the right technical framework in place.

Then, the QSA conducts interviews with key personnel to get a more thorough understanding of the organization’s security practices and validate that policies are being followed. They also perform technical exams to identify security weaknesses. 

What Must You Provide After Your PCI Risks Have Been Identified?

There are several items you’ll need to provide post-audit. Ideally, you’ll identify all security risks beforehand. But in reality, it’s common for QSAs to spot overlooked weaknesses during the auditing process. In the event that new risks are brought to light, there are a few extra steps you’ll need to take.

First, you will need to draw up a remediation plan. This should outline how you intend on addressing the identified vulnerabilities. Most plans include specific actions and responsible parties for each mitigation strategy. 

In some cases, businesses are asked to provide evidence of remediation, demonstrating that they have implemented the necessary controls. You will also need to revise your security policies to reflect new changes.

Finally, you’ll need to show an attestation of compliance (AoC) and report on compliance (RoC).    An AoC is a formal document proving your organization complies with PCI DSS requirements. An RoC documents audit findings and explains your remediation plan. 

Get Ready For a PCI Compliance Risk Assessment With Compyl

There’s a lot that goes into a PCI compliance risk assessment, but don’t fear. With Compyl, you can streamline PCI compliance and ace the process. With everything from workflow automation to automated regulatory updates, we can help you stay on track. Request a demo to see how our solution works in action. 

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