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If Your IBM i Is Hacked, How Long Will It Be Before You Know?

IBM i (OS/400, i5/OS)
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Data breaches are often born out of poor configuration and user indifference. They always thrive on a lack of visibility. Ignore the warnings provided by your system at your peril!

 

Before delving too far into a discussion about how to recognize when a hack occurs, it is critical to first acknowledge that hacking an IBM i server is even possible. For many, the term "hack" conjures up the image of hardened cyber-criminals covertly circumventing perimeter defenses; however, the reality is often distinctly easier and far less dramatic. In my opinion, hacking describes any form of unauthorized access to data and programs, including when that access originates from inside the firewall, not just the exploitation of an inherent flaw in the operating environment.

 

IBM i and its predecessors, i5/OS and OS/400, have each enjoyed a reputation as some of most secure operating systems available. This strategic benefit is touted not only by IBM but is widely acknowledged by administrators, auditors, and even some security experts. However, the integrity of any device, application, or operating system depends not only on the existence of robust security controls but also on the correct configuration of those controls. Risk is elevated whenever either of these elements is lacking.

 

Integrity of the IBM i operating system is partly assured by several unique protection mechanisms. These include restrictions that ensure system objects are provided and modified only by IBM and that server functions are accessible only via IBM-supplied interfaces, such as commands and application programming interfaces (APIs). However, these mechanisms are not enforced unless the security level system value (QSECURITY) is set to level 40 or 50. Many years ago, IBM established level 40 as the default security level but, according to a popular study of servers running IBM i, an alarming 35 percent of servers running IBM i fail to meet this requirement. This is largely a result of system values being restored from earlier generations of the server. While the OS mechanisms are valuable, they are ineffective against unauthorized use of user objects, such as database files and application programs, which rely on the appropriate object permissions being established. User profile configuration is another critically important consideration. For example, a user with All Object (*ALLOBJ) special authority—and the study reported an average of 78 exists on each server—is able to override object security settings and issue commands that will disable the operating system and destroy the database!

 

Why would a legitimate user wish to wreak havoc by exploiting poor configuration? Well, it could be malicious or it could be accidental. During a security assessment, I discovered a programmer had scheduled a destructive function using the IBM i job scheduler. The job was being rescheduled repeatedly to prevent execution and payload delivery at a future date—presumably until the programmer was no longer on the payroll to reschedule it. This blatant and extreme example was a deliberate act that threatened the integrity of the entire environment. There are many documented examples of legitimate users accessing data in ways that contravene business expectations, such as performing unauthorized downloads to a PC via non-traditional interfaces such as ODBC or FTP.

 

Although no less problematic, accidents are even more likely. I learned about "multi-member physical files" the hard way when, in the early days of my programming career, I innocently deleted a handful of my client's database tables that appeared devoid of data. Unfortunately, I was unaware that the data resided in secondary members! As foolish as that act now seems, most people in IT can recall an instant when they wished they knew then what they know now or when the Enter key was less obedient. The risk of unfortunate events occurring can be reduced through careful configuration of object-level authorities as well as appropriately assigned user privileges. Either way, a forensics trail is required by most regulatory mandates.

 

The correct configuration of IBM i and user applications is beyond the scope of this article; however, there are many sources of education, including security sessions at COMMON (and other events), public webinars, and a plethora of online reading materials. For many, Carol Woodbury's excellent book IBM i Security Administration and Compliance is never out of reach. I always counsel organizations to begin a security project with an assessment to document the starting point—which helps to measure subsequent progress—and prioritize mitigation steps for maximum risk reduction.

 

Hacking of IBM i can originate from a compromised profile or from a legitimate user, and it can be either a malicious act or the result of an accidental misstep. Fortunately, integrated user and event auditing is one of the many value statements of IBM i and should always be configured to track when something unexpected happens. IBM i logs events to a special journal (*JRN) object named QAUDJRN. The benefit of a journal is that it's tamper-resistant, guarding the receiver entries so they cannot be altered or removed, a unique benefit of IBM i and a regulatory must-have. As with database journals, the data is funneled into a journal receiver where it is stored. The journal receiver can reside in any library, and I recommend altering the QGPL default to a library created specifically to house these objects. Once a receiver is full—a threshold defined via the journal's property settings—the system will automatically create another in a named sequence. Two system values, audit control (QAUDCTL) and audit level (QAUDLVL), oversee the main auditing functions and define what gets audited at a system level. Objects and user profiles also possess auditing properties, enabling closer observation.

 

Enterprise-class servers, such as those running IBM i, have higher likelihood of suffering exploitation at the hands of the trusted user rather than the anonymous attacker. However, operating within the confines of a corporate firewall does not eliminate the risk of being hacked from outside, or even the possibility of the host being used as the source of an extrusion attack. Firewalls, like any software, are susceptible to misconfiguration and can be compromised easily using network credentials that were cracked, stolen, or socially engineered. This possibility reinforces the benefits of utilizing a defense-in-depth model, whereby security is applied in multiple, independent layers. Fortunately, and as a further statement about the security capabilities inherent to the platform, IBM i has an integrated Intrusion Detection System (IDS). In my opinion, the IDS moniker undersells the total value of this feature as the detection is complemented by prevention capabilities, as well as the ability to monitor for both intrusion and extrusion events. Available at no additional charge, this component of the operating system is designed to detect—and even react to—anomalous TCP/IP activities, such as port scanning or distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks like a "Syn Flood" or "Smurf" attack. Activate this feature using the GUI interface provided in IBM Navigator for i, and then deploy a default policy, or define custom policies, to oversee the detection and response to attacks, scans, and traffic irregularities. Starting in IBM i 6.1, reliance on the Quality of Service (QoS) function was removed, making the IDS even easier to configure. Events that contravene policy are logged in the audit journal like any other type of suspicious or unauthorized behavior. They can also be brought to the attention of interested parties using built-in email notifications. Of course, in the same theme as the rest of this article, success is entirely dependent on the function being activated and properly configured.

 

After auditing is initiated, it's important to establish a review process, at least for the most critical entries. While this sounds obvious, many organizations collect audit data without any form of security- or compliance-motivated review. This often includes those using high-availability (HA) solutions that utilize auditing to detect system changes to be replicated to a backup system. Commercial HA applications typically purge the audit data once it's no longer required for that purpose, often within 48 hours of collection. This retention window is woefully inadequate for security forensics and does not meet any modern regulatory statute. Other organizations have no intention of reviewing the data and therefore believe there's no business benefit from collecting it. In that scenario, I introduce the analogy of closed-circuit TV cameras in a bank: while the live video may not be monitored constantly, recording the feed remains imperative so that it may be "rewound" if an incident does occur. Even without ongoing review, IBM i audit data should still be captured so that it can be analyzed retroactively if any form of red flag is observed, akin to an airplane "black box" recorder.

 

Reviewing thousands or even millions of individual audit entries manually is an arduous and error-prone task. The operating system contains the Copy Audit Journal (CPYAUDJRN) command to extract entries from the receivers into database files. Selection is based on a two-character audit-record entry type, meaning that the challenge of dealing with a single, huge repository (possibly containing more than a hundred different entry types) is supplanted by the challenge of dealing with more than one hundred individual database files, each containing a subset of the full record set. It's certainly no wonder that the requirement to review the audit information is typically met with disdain! Commercial-grade forensics tools, seen as a requirement by many organizations, are available from numerous IBM i security vendors. These solutions are designed to minimize the human effort associated with gathering, filtering, and sorting the data. Sending log entries to a Security Event and Information Manager (SEIM) in real time is also becoming more commonplace thanks to the growing popularity of these solutions; however, there is risk of security events becoming obfuscated from the server's own administrators. Some audit events are more critical than others, so focusing attention on reviewing a subset of the events can make a review more manageable. In the absence of any automated tools, I still recommend collecting all the events as commercial solutions can always be purchased and utilized to search the log if a breach is discovered. Budgets tend to become unlimited in this scenario! At this point, I feel I need to remind readers that certain entries, such as the feared "AF" authority failure event, will be logged only if the security configuration restricts certain events. If, for example, every profile has all object (*ALLOBJ) privileges, or if objects are all set with a *PUBLIC authority of *ALL, then an authority failure event can technically never occur.

 

Common sense dictates how critical it is that unauthorized activity on the network or the server be logged. Less frequently acknowledged—but equally important—is to proactively establish an incident response plan. Note that I said "proactive," which suggests it should not be created in a state of panic when an incident has already occurred! Planning for worst-case scenarios before they happen helps to ensure that any reaction is officially sanctioned, timely, and decisive. But remember: a plan is beneficial only if staff are aware of it and educated on how to use it, and are taught the multitude of do's and don’ts associated with managing a breach scenario.

 

In summary, protection of an IBM i environment relies heavily upon the integrated security controls, the comprehensive configuration of those controls, and auditing the actions of users. In the absence of auditing, the question of when you will know of a breach translates more accurately to if you will ever know of a breach. We have to stop ignoring that a server running IBM i most certainly can be hacked and, while it may not come from a blatant flaw in the operating system, common configuration weaknesses such as a sub-par password policy with passwords that match the user name, uncontrolled TCP services (e.g., FTP, DDM, and ODBC), and reliance on the IBM-supplied default for object authority leave data vulnerable to unauthorized access.

 

For more information on configuring IBM i security, including establishing a well-defined audit environment, consult IBM's online Knowledge Center or contract a reputable IBM i security expert. I also recommend downloading the IBM Security Reference Manual (SC41-5302-12) and Security Intrusion Detection manual from IBM.com.

Robin Tatam

Robin Tatam is the Director of Security Technologies for PowerTech, a leading provider of security solutions for the System i. As a frequent speaker on security topics, he was also co-author of the Redbook IBM System i Security: Protecting i5/OS Data with Encryption. Robin can be reached at 952.563.2768 or robin.tatam@powertech.com.

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    There are a number of ways you can minimize your exposure to viruses. IBM i security expert Sandi Moore explains the facts, including how to ensure you're fully protected and compliant with regulations such as PCI.

     

     

  • Fight Cyber Threats with IBM i Encryption

    SB PowerTech WC GenericCyber attacks often target mission-critical servers, and those attack strategies are constantly changing. To stay on top of these threats, your cybersecurity strategies must evolve, too. In this session, IBM i security expert Robin Tatam provides a quick recap of IBM i security basics and guides you through some advanced cybersecurity techniques that can help you take data protection to the next level. Robin will cover:

    • Reducing the risk posed by special authorities
    • Establishing object-level security
    • Overseeing user actions and data access

     

     

     

  • 10 Practical IBM i Security Tips for Surviving Covid-19 and Working From Home

    SB PowerTech WC GenericNow that many organizations have moved to a work from home model, security concerns have risen.

    During this session Carol Woodbury will discuss the issues that the world is currently seeing such as increased malware attacks and then provide practical actions you can take to both monitor and protect your IBM i during this challenging time.

     

  • How to Transfer IBM i Data to Microsoft Excel

    SB_HelpSystems_WC_Generic3 easy ways to get IBM i data into Excel every time
    There’s an easy, more reliable way to import your IBM i data to Excel? It’s called Sequel. During this webinar, our data access experts demonstrate how you can simplify the process of getting data from multiple sources—including Db2 for i—into Excel. Watch to learn how to:

    • Download your IBM i data to Excel in a single step
    • Deliver data to business users in Excel via email or a scheduled job
    • Access IBM i data directly using the Excel add-in in Sequel

    Make 2020 the year you finally see your data clearly, quickly, and securely. Start by giving business users the ability to access crucial business data from IBM i the way they want it—in Microsoft Excel.

     

     

  • HA Alternatives: MIMIX Is Not Your Only Option on IBM i

    SB_HelpSystems_WC_GenericIn this recorded webinar, our experts introduce you to the new HA transition technology available with our Robot HA software. You’ll learn how to:

    • Transition your rules from MIMIX (if you’re happy with them)
    • Simplify your day-to-day activities around high availability
    • Gain back time in your work week
    • Make your CEO happy about reducing IT costs

    Don’t stick with a legacy high availability solution that makes you uncomfortable when transitioning to something better can be simple, safe, and cost-effective.

     

     

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  • Backup and Recovery on IBM i: Your Strategy for the Unexpected

    SB HelpSystems SC 5413Robot automates the routine tasks of iSeries backup and recovery, saving you time and money and making the process safer and more reliable. Automate your backups with the Robot Backup and Recovery Solution. Key features include:
    - Simplified backup procedures
    - Easy data encryption
    - Save media management
    - Guided restoration
    - Seamless product integration
    Make sure your data survives when catastrophe hits. Try the Robot Backup and Recovery Solution FREE for 30 days.

  • Manage IBM i Messages by Exception with Robot

    SB HelpSystems SC 5413Managing messages on your IBM i can be more than a full-time job if you have to do it manually. How can you be sure you won’t miss important system events?
    Automate your message center with the Robot Message Management Solution. Key features include:
    - Automated message management
    - Tailored notifications and automatic escalation
    - System-wide control of your IBM i partitions
    - Two-way system notifications from your mobile device
    - Seamless product integration
    Try the Robot Message Management Solution FREE for 30 days.

  • Easiest Way to Save Money? Stop Printing IBM i Reports

    SB HelpSystems SC 5413Robot automates report bursting, distribution, bundling, and archiving, and offers secure, selective online report viewing.
    Manage your reports with the Robot Report Management Solution. Key features include:

    - Automated report distribution
    - View online without delay
    - Browser interface to make notes
    - Custom retention capabilities
    - Seamless product integration
    Rerun another report? Never again. Try the Robot Report Management Solution FREE for 30 days.

  • Hassle-Free IBM i Operations around the Clock

    SB HelpSystems SC 5413For over 30 years, Robot has been a leader in systems management for IBM i.
    Manage your job schedule with the Robot Job Scheduling Solution. Key features include:
    - Automated batch, interactive, and cross-platform scheduling
    - Event-driven dependency processing
    - Centralized monitoring and reporting
    - Audit log and ready-to-use reports
    - Seamless product integration
    Scale your software, not your staff. Try the Robot Job Scheduling Solution FREE for 30 days.

  • ACO MONITOR Manages your IBM i 24/7 and Notifies You When Your IBM i Needs Assistance!

    SB DDL Systems 5429More than a paging system - ACO MONITOR is a complete systems management solution for your Power Systems running IBM i. ACO MONITOR manages your Power System 24/7, uses advanced technology (like two-way messaging) to notify on-duty support personnel, and responds to complex problems before they reach critical status.

    ACO MONITOR is proven technology and is capable of processing thousands of mission-critical events daily. The software is pre-configured, easy to install, scalable, and greatly improves data center efficiency.