A Different Perspective on the Starbucks Fiasco
Starbucks is in the news as criminals abuse its online services through fraudulent gift card purchases. On the surface, the issue appears to be about consumers’ passwords and the poor practices around their use. There is more to the story, however, and I would argue two deeper concerns are the real issue. The first is in how emerging payment systems are monitored and secured. The second is in how online services are developed and maintained.The Starbucks security hole is simple enough. The criminal breaks into the coffee-loving victim’s account by guessing their password or using the password reset features. They then load a Starbucks gift card using the victim’s stored payment information, and transfer that card to themselves. This is usually automated so that several gift cards can be filled and stolen in a short period of time. The attack normally ends only when the victim receives notices on the gift cards and resets their Starbucks password.
Starbucks reportedly processed $2 billion in mobile payments last year. That’s a serious amount of business that requires a re-adjustment of their risk appetite to reflect the target their business has become. Moreover, as retailers and emerging payment systems develop bank-like functionality (funds transfer, cards), they need to start thinking more like banks. Anti-fraud techniques such as behavior monitoring for unusual activity is a prime example. Another is offering consumer protections such as reimbursements (at this point, Starbucks defers consumers to work with PayPal or their credit card company.) When transactions are into the billions, it’s time for mobile payments to offer credit card equivalent security for consumers.
The other aspect of consumer protection is the online service itself. In , threat modeling is one of the first steps. The goal is to look at the functionality being developed and to identify ways it could be abused. With this in mind, security and privacy requirements can be defined. After Starbucks built their services, they could have performed scenario-based penetration tests to ensure the controls met the requirements, and the requirements prevent the threat. Given that gift card fraud is well known and that the controls in place are lacking, it’s clear that Starbucks did not complete these steps as part of their development program.
In summary, yes, consumers need to watch their password hygiene and monitor their accounts. But there’s more to the story. As companies build online services that handle billions in payments, they must mature their processes in handling fraud and building applications. We need credit card equivalent security for transactions. Developers need a secure development lifecycle for preventing their services from being abused. Starbucks is today’s example of organizations falling short on both areas, and leaving the consumers with the tab.