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IBM i Embraces Biometric User Authentication

IBM i (OS/400, i5/OS)
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This technology isn't "bleeding edge" anymore. Now, it's solving real business problems.


It may surprise you to learn that IBM i shops are beginning to exploit biometric authentication. But it's true. Even though many people still believe that biometric authentication is "bleeding edge" technology, your compatriots in the IBM i world are successfully implementing it.


Before describing in more detail how IBM i shops are exploiting this technology, it's useful to first define the term.


SearchSecurity.com defines biometrics as "the science and technology of measuring and analyzing biological data. In information technology, biometrics refers to technologies that measure and analyze human body characteristics, such as DNA, fingerprints, eye retinas and irises, voice patterns, facial patterns and hand measurements, for authentication purposes." This is a pretty accurate description.


Putting it all together from an IT shop perspective, biometric authentication means using measurements related to human biology to confirm the truth of an attribute about a particular user—namely, that a specific person is, in fact, represented by the specified user ID in a particular system.


Authentication can be accomplished in three ways using one or more of the following: 1) something you know, 2) something you have, and 3) something you are. Biometric authentication is an example of option 3.


Using two of the options above (commonly referred to as "factors") to authenticate an individual is referred to as two-factor authentication. Using two or more factors is also referred to as multi-factor authentication.

What's the Difference Between Authentication and Identification?

An important distinction between authentication and identification must be understood. Authentication is verifying that a specified user ID actually does represent a specific person. Identification, on the other hand, is determining which user ID represents a specific individual. This would be like trying to use only a password—without specifying a user ID—to determine which user ID represents the person who provided the password. Existing IT hardware and software is not quite yet capable of performing "biometric identification." This implies that at least some scenarios will still require users to supply user IDs during the authentication process.


Another common erroneous assumption is that biometric authentication means fingerprints, period. In reality, many other types of biometric authentication are also in use today: retinal and iris scans, hand or palm geometry, voice recognition, facial recognition, plus behavior-related metrics like typing patterns and signature recognition. Fingerprints are still the most common type in use today, although the costs of other types of recognition devices are falling and are beginning to be more common.

Biometrics in IT

Biometrics can be exploited in several ways in the IT shop: for logging into a green-screen or an application and for verifying specific transactions. Biometrics can be used as a second factor in addition to passwords or as the only factor in certain situations.


Biometrics can also be used to overcome objections to single sign-on (SSO). The user logs into the Windows domain as usual, and a Kerberos ticket is generated. When users attempt to access IBM i, the Kerberos ticket is passed to the Telnet server. The Telnet server validates the Kerberos ticket. Using the Telnet sign-on exit point, biometric authentication can be added as a second factor (the valid Kerberos ticket acts as proof of knowing the password). The exit point program needs to prompt—or to cause to prompt—the user to interact with the biometric sensor (e.g., a fingerprint reader). Similarly, it must be able to validate or cause to validate the biometric data against the expected user ID. If it matches, the person attempting to log into Telnet must still be the same person who originally logged into the Windows domain. This is one way to overcome objections to SSO.

Biometrics, OS Interfaces, and Applications

Adding biometrics to green-screen sign-on can also be accomplished by using initial programs, but this approach cannot be used for all IBM i OS interfaces. In addition, the administrator must ensure that a number of interfaces—such as the Attention key—are either disabled or protected with a program that also prompts for biometric authentication. Using exit points, the same basic code can be used for all sign-on-related exit points or those interfaces can be stopped to prevent their use.


Using the same single sign-on scenario, even the password required to sign into the Windows domain can be eliminated by using biometrics. Rather than having the user enter both the user ID and password, the login window provides the ability to specify the domain name and the user ID only. The password window is removed from the prompt. This requires GINA code (for pre-Windows Vista workstations) and plug-in code for the Windows domain controller (pre-Windows Server 2008). This can be accomplished in Windows Vista and later workstations by using the new Windows sign-on framework.


Client-server applications often require authentication. Many third-party enterprise applications provide the equivalent of exit points for customers to add their own authentication mechanisms. JD Edwards One World is one example. For these and home-grown applications, adding biometric authentication is a matter of writing the code to prompt for and validate biometric data.


Likewise, biometric authentication can be performed from within an application to validate only specific, highly sensitive transactions. While this could be done using password authentication, the requirement to continually type the same password becomes onerous for the user. The coding is exactly the same as if the authentication were occurring at system/application sign-on time. The user merely needs to interact with the biometric sensor. In these scenarios, biometrics are used to ensure that the person performing the transaction is still the person who actually signed on to the system.


One scenario where this can prove extremely useful is for tracking an administrator's access to sensitive data such as medical records. Biometric authentication is much less likely to be breached than passwords and, when used in this way, provides a very high level of confidence that it was the person represented by the user ID and not someone who is using that person's workstation or who has stolen that person's user ID.


Biometric authentication can also be added to Web-based applications with no more complexity than for system-based applications. As such, biometrics stand ready to raise the level of security for things like online banking and cloud-based applications. The only thing preventing this from happening is for the providers of these applications to realize that it really is a viable option today. I suspect that when biometrics start to be exploited in this arena, the movement will start as an optional mechanism for users who opt in.

Real-World IBM i Exploitation of Biometric Authentication

In the IBM i arena, several security vendors now provide biometric authentication framework products. You want to choose one that provides centralized management of the biometric authentication while completely hiding the complexities of adding biometric authentication from IT business logic programmers.


There's good news for IBM i hardware related to biometric authentication. While some products support many of the workstations and/or server operating systems most IT shops are likely to use, a subset of those are actually IBM i-based. In fact, biometric authentication has created sales of IBM i hardware that would not have otherwise occurred in those shops.


IBM i shops with biometric authentication projects fall into several different industries, including banking, manufacturing, utility, local government, and news media. Different customers have different motivations. Some are trying to reduce the costs of using passwords. Some are trying to improve security. Some are trying to eliminate problems specific to their industry.


I've been fortunate to have some real-world experience with IBM i shops' exploitation of biometric authentication. I have worked with a couple of fairly large banks on biometric authentication projects. One bank wanted to eliminate passwords entirely for most internal users. This bank enabled biometrics for the Windows domain login as well as for the IBM i sign-on for internal users. This project used a biometrics product's components but didn't require any programming changes on the customer's part.


Another bank was initially focused on eliminating customer fraud. This bank is planning to implement optional biometric authentication at the teller. This project is underway. It requires the client to have their third-party banking software provider add a call to an API within their product. Potentially more than 1 million customers performing certain transactions will be required to authenticate using fingerprint biometrics. The same bank is also now considering implementing biometric authentication for internal users as well.


Two customers in the manufacturing industry have implemented biometric authentication for the purpose of eliminating "buddy punching," which means that an employee's buddy punches a time clock for them. Buddy punching can add up to significant amounts of lost money for employers. The scenarios in both cases were roughly the same. The customers used RPG programs to manage time and attendance. In one case, the employee provided an employee ID and a password to one of several workstations located on the manufacturing floor. In the other, employees swiped a card through a reader that read their employee ID and then asked them to type a password. In both cases, employees could share their user IDs (or cards) and passwords with fellow employees who would punch them in for work.


By changing existing RPG programs to call an API instead of reading a typed password, both companies now display a prompt for the employee to place their fingers on a fingerprint sensor attached to the workstation. The customer's RPG programs provide the specified employee ID to the API, and the API returns a pass/fail response. Either the person punching in is the person represented by the employee ID or he isn't.

Solutions to ID Problems

As we have shown here, IBM i shops have begun to embrace biometric authentication. For these customers, at least, biometrics are not bleeding edge, they are implemented and solving real business problems. Given all of the break-ins and exposed data in the news on a seemingly daily basis, it doesn't seem too big of a leap to predict that biometric authentication exploitation in IBM i shops will only continue to grow going forward.

as/400, os/400, iseries, system i, i5/os, ibm i, power systems, 6.1, 7.1, V7, V6R1

Pat Botz

Patrick Botz, an internationally known information security expert, is the President and CTO of Botz & Associates, a firm specializing in information security services for IBM i, AIX, UNIX, and Linux environments. 

With decades of experience in key system security positions, Patrick's expertise includes security strategy; security policy enforcement; password management and single sign-on; industry and government compliance; and biometrics.

As Lead Security Architect at IBM and founder of the IBM Lab Services security consulting practice, Patrick worked with IBM customers worldwide and achieved intimate knowledge of system security capabilities and pitfalls on a broad spectrum of platforms, with special emphasis on IBM i (formerly AS/400), AIX, Linux and Unix operating systems. He architected the SSO solution for OS/400 and i5/OS, and he holds several security-oriented patents. 

Early in his tenure at IBM, Patrick lead the AIX workstation tools team for CAD/CAM systems in Rochester, MN. Previous to IBM, he worked for Control Data Corporation with responsibility for CDC's Basic compiler, and for ETA Systems, Inc., a wholly owned supercomputer manufacturing subsidiary of CDC, where he was the team leader for the distributed, Unix-based Electronic Computer-Aided Design (ECAD) tools.

Patrick is the author of numerous trade press articles and a co-author of the book Expert's Guide to OS/400 and i5/OS SecurityIn addition, he is a worldwide speaker on various platform-specific and general security topics.



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