Are Cybercriminals Winning the Mainframe Security Cat-and-Mouse Game?

Just as mainframes are seeing a resurgence in usage, a recent poll revealed that multiple factors are converging to make it harder to secure the mission-critical data they contain and, increasingly, share with cloud-based systems and applications. Respondents cited new types of attacks as a top challenge and indicated that simple security measures are not yet widely adopted.

Even as a large and growing number of organizations point to security as a top benefit of the mainframe over other platforms — thanks in part to the sweeping encryption IBM enabled in the z14 and newest z15 systems — the poll of mainframe/IBM Z users uncovered a disconnect between that belief and the reality those organizations face in securing mainframe environments.

What Are the Top Challenges in Securing Mainframe Environments?

The poll, conducted for IBM in late summer 2019 by Enterprise Management Associates, found that the top challenge in securing mainframe environments is the ability to stay up to date on new types of attacks aimed at mainframes. While 35 percent of respondents indicated that was the top challenge, another 29 percent said that having adequate, mainframe-specific tools to optimize security was the biggest challenge. These results are different sides of the same coin.

The top-ranked mainframe security challenge response comes at a time when black-hat hackers are becoming increasingly sophisticated in targeting mainframe vulnerabilities for exploitation and data theft, thanks to a greater level of education becoming available at conferences such as Black Hat and DEF CON, via pen testing services, and on the dark web.

At the same time, those charged with securing mainframe environments don’t see the same level of support for monitoring and detecting threats in that environment using advanced security tools compared to what’s available to secure distributed and cloud environments.

To put it more succinctly, for mainframe security practitioners, it’s like bringing a knife to a gun fight. And the number of fighters organizations can bring to the brawl is shrinking as skilled mainframe security practitioners hang up their hats.

How Can Companies Mature Their Mainframe Security Strategies?

Another factor making it harder to secure mainframe environments, according to the polling data, is the lack of access control. For example, using multifactor authentication (MFA) is a relatively quick and easy way to eliminate a large percentage of attacks — especially the high-volume/low-sophistication kind.

Despite a significant increase in the number of affordable tokens and third-party authenticators available for the mainframe enterprise platform, almost half of the respondents indicated that they either don’t use MFA or only require a few highly privileged users to use a second factor. Only easily stolen user IDs and passwords stand between these organizations’ crown jewels and attackers. At the same time, only 79 percent of respondents indicated that their organizations use a robust password management system — a simple fix for a potentially big problem.

Another way to reduce the attack surface used in more mature mainframe security programs is through an automated data minimization program. However, only 20 percent of respondents reported that their organizations had a robust, automated data minimization program in place, while 16 percent had either no formal program or relied on manually monitored policy and/or execution.

Despite these challenges, organizations can keep more black-hat hackers at bay and improve the security of their mainframe environments by leveraging the growing number of automated and better-integrated security tools — especially encryption and data protection, multifactor authentication, and more robust password management.

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