Unauthorized Users and External Hackers Are Top Concerns Cited in Mainframe Security Survey

Mainframe Security Survey

Bad actors are everywhere, lurking in the shadows of an otherwise relatively benign computing world. They could be governments, business competitors, organized cybergangs, hacktivists, teenagers with laptops or disgruntled employees. And their disguises are many, ranging from mal- and ransomware, network sniffers, and phishing schemes to social engineering and seemingly innocuous documents sitting in file systems. They attack firewalls, clouds, mobile devices, passwords and even everyday complacency.

This is why 54.1 percent of respondents to a recent mainframe-security survey conducted by IBM Systems Magazine said they’re very concerned about security. Another 36.3 percent indicated they’re somewhat concerned, and 9.6 percent aren’t concerned at all. That last number aside, it’s clear that organizations of all types realize security risks are real and perhaps growing—both in numbers and sophistication.

A Great Threat

But few are taking any chances. Information Technology Co., based in Falls Church, Virginia, takes security risks so seriously that it set up a mainframe on the web with no firewall to see how many hits it gets, says Stan King, the company’s CTO. Although no one has hacked into the machine, it attracts 5,000 to 6,000 attempts a day. “A lot of them are robot-oriented types of security hacks, where someone’s just trying every IP address, every port—but they’re definitely hitting us,” he explains.

“Unauthorized users tend to have access to very sensitive data, and this can present a great threat to the organization.”
—Trinadh Desu, senior associate, Cognizant Technology Services

That should alarm the 9.6 percent who aren’t concerned about security at all. They may have sky-high firewalls, a bevy of third-party security solutions in place and strictly adhered-to policies, but they may also be overlooking the biggest security concern of all, according to the survey: 74 percent of respondents are wary of both unauthorized and authorized system-user access or credential abuse.

“Unauthorized users tend to have access to very sensitive data, and this can present a great threat to the organization,” says Trinadh Desu, senior associate with Teaneck, New Jersey-based Cognizant Technology Services. To help counter this, his organization has implemented security-related policies and audits. The business and technology services company also employs encryption and restricts workplace web and mobile usage.

Fred Shay, mainframe storage manager, IBM, agrees with this assessment, noting that because the mainframe is more secure than Wintel servers, internal threats are often most serious. “The risk is from people already within the circle of trust: people misusing data they’re already authorized to access; disgruntled, malicious or careless employees; inappropriate access by vendors who are trusted. This is how security incidents happen on the mainframe,” he says. “It’s up to other business functions, such as the human resources department and regular audits, to detect problems that occur among the authorized.”

A Seemingly Endless List

That’s not the only way. According to the survey, other threat concerns include unauthorized users (52 percent), external hackers (50 percent), unprotected downloads (27.3 percent), phishing (17.1 percent), software hooks or trapdoors (15.3 percent), and malware (12.4 percent). See the breakdown in Figure 1.

This list is already long and seems likely to expand, which prompts King to say, “Everyone should be scared. They all have unique situations, and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.”

Indeed, the survey respondents hail from various industries (see Figure 2, page 36), including banking and finance (22.7 percent), government and military (8.6 percent), insurance (7.9 percent) and manufacturing (3.1 percent). Each industry has unique reasons and requirements for protecting data. For some, regulations and compliance requirements are key drivers. For others, damage to reputation or brands are motivators.

Jim Utsler, IBM Systems Magazine senior writer, has been covering the technology field for more than a decade. Jim can be reached at

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