IBM Lab Services Helps Clients Stay Vigilant Against Data Hackers

IBM Lab Services

In July 2015, an operator noticed some heavy UNIX* System Service (USS) activity that seemed highly suspicious. Some scripts were sending spam messages all over the world from the client’s mainframe.

The client called IBM Systems Lab Services for z Systems* and LinuxONE*, and the Lab Services team sprang into action. The team of highly skilled specialists has deep technical knowledge in a number of different areas, including network, storage and security for z/OS* and Linux* for z Systems. After performing a forensic search on the client’s system, Lab Services determined that the hackers had made a miscalculation. They thought they’d hacked a Linux system—and hadn’t figured out they were on a mainframe and could access customer data. The hackers had used the system as a spamming machine without digging further. If they’d discovered that the client was managing a large amount of its customers’ personal data, the resulting leak would have been a disaster.

It was a close call. By and large, cyber thieves are more wily and sophisticated. With many types of data bringing in billions of dollars on the black market, they’re devoting all of their time trying to outwit organizations’ data-protection strategies. For them, hacking is a full-time job. But system administrators can rarely dedicate all of a staffer’s hours to monitoring illicit activity on their systems.

In fixing leaks and reinforcing data safety, Lab Services team members know the headaches and indigestion administrators are dealing with, and they make use of the numerous security tools in the IBM toolbox. They also know what z Systems administrators will have to confront in the future. New global data privacy standards will require organizations to add new layers of protection to the data they store.

Firefighters, Physicians and Teachers

Lab Services works on other z Systems issues besides security, but with hackers working full time to find ways to evade the latest data-protection measures, security keeps Lab Services staff notably busy. Didier Andre, a mainframe consultant for Lab Services who focuses on z Systems, describes the department as “a team of firefighters,” putting out fires.

“But usually, our consulting service is about prevention,” Andre adds. “People tend to say or to think that mainframe is the most secure platform. That’s not 100 percent true—it’s the most securable. And we’re providing services to help our clients to make it the most secure.”

Because preventive measures are a major part of their work, another way to think of Andre and his Lab Services colleagues is as physicians. For IBM clients that request their help, they conduct what they call security “health checks” on the entire system. That starts with IBM’s RACF* software, which provides basic security for the mainframe. But that’s just the start of helping clients ensure their systems are as secure as possible.

“We’re looking holistically at how you’re protecting the data—when you have it, when you receive it, and when you send it off,” says Craig Johnston, a Lab Services consultant specializing in mainframe security. “That’s especially important for PCI DSS, because those systems are just part of the bigger picture—including how you’re protecting the data from a merchant, through the card issuer, the reconciliation of the bills and so on.”

PCI DSS applies to companies of any size that process credit card data and it mandates cryptographic use, because organizations that accept such payments must store, process and transmit cardholder data. For hackers, that data is pure gold, and organizations must guard that treasure on a PCI-compliant system. PCI DSS is a set of requirements designed to secure and protect customer payment data. Not following the PCI DSS standards puts an organization’s customers’ credit data at risk.

A breach could cost that organization millions in repairs, reparations to customers or potential loss of reputation and business.

In helping clients keep their customers’ data safe, Lab Services pays particular attention to cryptography (i.e., crypto). Crypto covers all technologies used to convert plain text into scrambled text so that outsiders can’t access or “read” it.

Gene Rebeck is a freelance writer based in Duluth, Minnesota.

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