Is The Mainframe A Good Repository For Enterprise Wide User Passwords?

The subject matter of creating and maintaining passwords is arguably infinite and for the purposes of this article, we will provide a concise review…

In an ideal world, strong multiple factor authentication techniques would be deployed for every user authentication access attempt, including:

  • Biometrics – Unique measurable attribute (E.g. Voice, Fingerprint, Retina, et al)
  • Tokens – A physical device (E.g. Smart Card, One Time Password, et al)
  • User Secret – Something you know (E.g. Password, Phrase, PIN, et al)

Obviously the more authentication techniques used in combination, the stronger the authentication process becomes!

Primarily due to cost and complexity, passwords remain the most pervasive form of user authentication.  This simple fact in itself exposes the human being as the primary vulnerability in safeguarding access to business systems.

However, passwords are simply just words, phrases or a string of characters that can be easily remembered by the user.  As such, passwords can be compromised in numerous scenarios, for example:

  • Hardcopy – The written word; users write them down and/or share them with others.
  • Cracking – Passwords can be guessed; typically a simple program designed to try many possibilities in rapid succession.  Simple passwords might be guessed by another human being.
  • Unsecure Transmission – Passwords no matter how complex are transmitted over an unsecure network in a simplistic (E.g. text) form, or with basic encoding, which can be easily converted to text.
  • Inappropriate Storage – Passwords are stored on a server, fixed or removable media storage, in a simplistic (E.g. text) form, or with basic encoding, which can be easily converted to text.

These potential vulnerabilities generate possibilities for somebody to obtain a password and subsequently access a business system as the user associated with their password.  The potential consequences are obvious, depending on the importance of the user…

However, if password systems are implemented to deny malicious attacks, inspection or decryption of passwords being transmitted over the network, or at rest on fixed or removable storage media; passwords can be very secure.  Therefore a combination of technology and good practice is required, safeguarding compliant and latest technology systems are deployed, educating users not to be the point of vulnerability, by allowing others to easily access their password.

There might be some urban myths as to whether the IBM Mainframe is a good platform for enterprise wide password management, for example:

  • Sniffing For Mainframe Passwords (This scenario depends on the lack of an SSL infrastructure)
  • CRACF (This Mainframe password cracking utility identifies simple user/password/group vulnerabilities)

Both of these scenarios are examples of whether “reverse engineering” thinking is good practice.  So let’s pose as a potential hacker and see if we can obtain a user and associated password.  These scenarios highlight the combined requirement of deploying a secure environment and safeguarding that user’s don’t and indeed are not allowed to create simplistic (low strength) passwords.

Ultimately password strength is governed by password length and associated combination of characters, including alphanumeric, upper/lower case, special characters, et al.  There are also some other urban myths regarding the IBM Mainframe, regarding the maximum length of password (E.g. 8 Characters) and the type of character supported (E.g. only alphanumeric uppercase).  For many years, RACF has supported the password phrase extension to the password rules, increasing password length to 100 characters:

  • Maximum length: 100 characters
  • Minimum length: 9 characters, when ICHPWX11 is present and allows the new value or 14 characters, when ICHPWX11 is not present
  • The user ID (as sequential upper case characters or sequential lower case characters) is not part of the password phrase
  • At least 2 alphabetic characters are specified (A – Z, a – z)
  • At least 2 non-alphabetic characters are specified (I.E. numeric, punctuation, special characters, blanks)
  • No more than 2 consecutive characters are identical

The use of high strength passwords is required because although human beings might give up after trying tens or maybe hundreds of password guesses, automated programs can achieve millions of password access attempts in a second, for example:

There will always be a debate as to whether Single Sign On (SSO) or password synchronization is the best solution for maintaining password integrity and both solutions have their merits.  Once again, a multiple authentication factor solution increases the security strength of either solution.

Passwords are most vulnerable when they’re forgotten and intervention is required to reinstate the password.  Traditionally password resets were performed by an IT Support resource (human being) and this human interaction process generates what are termed “social engineering” challenges.  Let’s explore a typical scenario, while considering any exposure and circumvention techniques:

Password Reset: IT Support Process

  • User has forgotten or mistyped their password (log-in denial/intruder alert)
  • User contacts IT support function (might encounter a no response or queue waiting scenario)
  • IT support asks user for credentials (E.g. name, department, et al)
  • IT Support authenticates this information with some on-line resource/authenticates user
  • IT support resets password or not, depending on whether user is “manually” authenticated
  • User might be prompted to immediately change their password on first successful log-in attempt

The security weaknesses associated with this process are numerous and prone to human error, for example:

Obvious Security Weaknesses: Business Exposure

  • IT Support forgets to authenticate the user
  • On-line resources for authenticating the user are not available
  • User credentials are widely available and so “social engineering” exposes the system
  • Password reset authority is granted to many non-IT personnel, for work productivity reasons
  • Password reset activity is not tracked and so is not auditable, accountable or traceable
  • IT support now knows the user password

Having identified the potential simplistic vulnerabilities, we implement processes to eradicate them, for example:

Implementing Controls

  • IT support training to safeguard user authentication occurs for each and every password reset request
  • Safeguard sufficient and secure user authentication information is available to IT support personnel
  • Implement a password reset solution/process (E.g. software) to eliminate non-IT personnel password reset personnel (I.E. for non-standard scenarios)
  • Implement a self-service solution (E.g. software) that allows the user to change their passwords, based on previously supplied “security challenge” questions and answers

Where user authentication depends on a password, eliminating “human” intervention touch points wherever possible is mandatory, minimizing the opportunity for “social engineering” techniques to compromise security.  We have also identified that the IBM Mainframe does offer a secure environment for retaining passwords with ultra-high-strength security and that as always, the IBM Mainframe remains difficult to hack…

There are many software products to assist password reset scenarios, some that are platform specific and some that don’t support the IBM Mainframe.  For those customers with an IBM Mainframe, Vanguard PasswordReset is an enterprise wide self-help password reset solution.

Vanguard PasswordReset addresses the common problem of forgotten or expired passwords, allowing authorized users to quickly and securely change their passwords at any time without help desk intervention.

Easy to install and use Vanguard PasswordReset does not require any software on user workstations or any additional hardware, with a rigorous set of checks and balances to ensure that only authorized users can initiate password reset requests.

Users register with the Vanguard PasswordReset website by typing a series of questions and answers or answering a set of predefine questions. When users want to change their passwords, they log on to the Vanguard PasswordReset website, type the answers to the questions and reset their passwords.  For increased security, Vanguard PasswordReset allows system administrators to set the number of questions that must be answered and other characteristics of the answers.

A self-service password solution such as delivers Vanguard PasswordReset the following benefits:

  • Eliminates lost productivity when users are unable to access computer applications.
  • Provides improved help-desk productivity by allowing support staff to concentrate on solving other issues rather than time-consuming password resets.
  • Enhances enterprise security by standardizing password reset activities and eliminating human error.
  • Reduces IT support costs by automating costly password resetting activities.
  • Helps retain customers by making it easier for them to access extranet and e-business environments.
  • Virtually eliminates actual or hidden costs associated with installing, administering, maintaining and retiring thin-client software on user work stations.

In conclusion, maintaining passwords for user authentication purposes is a complex, costly and all-encompassing activity.  Eradicating human intervention and touch points wherever possible, minimizes the impact of “social engineering” attacks, while deploying highly secure software solutions further increases the integrity of the primary access method to mission-critical business data, namely user access via authentication.