Every merchant that takes credit cards undergoes an annual ritual known as their PCI audit. Why? Because merchants take credit cards from end users, and the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI-DSS) requires the annual audit of all environments that store cardholder data. Unfortunately, PCI audits are complicated, expensive, and distracting. But new technology may make them less necessary.
Consider what the credit card really is: It’s a promise of payment; an agreement between an end user and their bank (and, by proxy, the entire card network) that enables the user to promise funds to a merchant. That’s also the weakness of the system: the 16 digits of the card (plus a few other data points, like expiration date, CVV, and name) are equivalent to a public currency.
And that currency needs to be stored in a lot of places, for a long period of time. For user convenience and increased revenues, merchants want to support repeat buying without card reentry, so they need to keep the card (and to support chargebacks). For fraud detection, merchants want to check for card overuse. This leads to a threat to the currency, and much of the purpose behind the (PCI-DSS): cards at rest are a valuable, and omnipresent target.
Tokenization is a technology that replaces the credit card (a promise between a user and their bank) with a token (a promise between a merchant and their bank). With tokenization, when presented a credit card, a merchant immediately turns it over to their payment gateway, and receives a token in exchange. The token is only useful to that merchant when talking to their gateway; the public currency (credit card usable anywhere) has been converted to private scrip (token tied to merchant and gateway).
The gateway has to maintain a mapping between tokens and credit cards, so that when a merchant redeems a token, the gateway can convert the token to a credit card charge. But a merchant can use the token in their internal systems for anything they would have used a credit card for in the past: loyalty programs, fraud detection, chargebacks, or convenience.
Tokenization isn’t a panacea for a merchant. The merchant still has a point in their infrastructure that takes credit cards, and that point is subject to PCI-DSS. If the merchant has a brick and mortar operation, PCI-DSS requirements will still apply there (although some POS terminals do support tokenization). But it can take a merchant a long way to defending their customers’ credit cards, and represents several steps forward to a model where merchants don’t need to see a credit card at all.