Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

Target Says PIN Numbers Among Data Stolen in Breach

target_redcardRetail giant Target, still reeling from the disclosure that some 40 million credit and debit card numbers of its customers were stolen in a massive data breach, just announced that the among the information stolen were the personal identification numbers related to those cards.

The company just issued a statement, which you can read in full below, saying that the data in question was “strongly encrypted,” meaning it would be difficult, if not impossible, for the attackers to put to use without significant computing power required to break the encryption.

Target says it doesn’t keep copies of the encryption keys around, and the PIN information is only decrypted once it reaches the payment processor, someone like, say, First Data. “What this means is that the ‘key’ necessary to decrypt that data has never existed within Target’s system and could not have been taken during this incident,” the statement says.

The breach affects people who used a credit or debit card at Target stores between Nov. 27 and Dec. 15. The company says it has been working with the U.S. Secret Service and a security division of Verizon Communications to investigate the attack.

Here’s the statement from Target spokeswoman Molly Snyder:

Good morning,

Our investigation into the data breach incident is continuing and ongoing. While we are still in the early stages of this criminal and forensic investigation, we continue to be committed to sharing the facts as they are confirmed.

While we previously shared that encrypted data was obtained, this morning through additional forensics work we were able to confirm that strongly encrypted PIN data was removed. We remain confident that PIN numbers are safe and secure. The PIN information was fully encrypted at the keypad, remained encrypted within our system, and remained encrypted when it was removed from our systems.

To help explain this, we want to provide more context on how the encryption process works. When a guest uses a debit card in our stores and enters a PIN, the PIN is encrypted at the keypad with what is known as Triple DES. Triple DES encryption is a highly secure encryption standard used broadly throughout the U.S.

Target does not have access to nor does it store the encryption key within our system. The PIN information is encrypted within Target’s systems and can only be decrypted when it is received by our external, independent payment processor. What this means is that the “key” necessary to decrypt that data has never existed within Target’s system and could not have been taken during this incident.

The most important thing for our guests to know is that their debit card accounts have not been compromised due to the encrypted PIN numbers being taken.


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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik