Why privacy and integrity matters in a mainframe network
Mainframes are the foundation for many critical systems, from bank databases to municipal systems for local governments. It's estimated that 70% of Fortune 500 companies have mainframes in their infrastructure. This hardware holds a lot of sensitive data, which puts it in a vulnerable position. Privacy and data integrity must be maintained for the mainframe systems to ensure that this information isn't accessed without authorisation, altered, or stolen.
What is data integrity?
Data integrity has three components to it: consistency, accuracy and the information's completeness. One of the most important functions of data integrity is checking whether the data has been changed in an unapproved way. Many things can change information as it moves through the network. Malicious attackers may add malware or disrupt data transmissions in transit. Errors could occur due to network connection problems or human error. Sometimes multiple versions of a file are accidentally created and lead to a lot of employee confusion.
Mechanisms such as non-repudiation aid in data integrity for a mainframe. Non-repudiation makes it impossible for a sender to deny that they sent a particular packet, and the receiver that they received it. Another way that data integrity is upheld when data is in transit is through the TCP networking protocol. When an application sends information over a network using TCP, this protocol keeps the data intact and checks it for errors along the way.
What is data privacy?
Data privacy is maintaining the confidentiality of information. Only authorised parties can view this information, whether it's in transit or at rest. Data privacy is an essential component to cybersecurity, especially when it comes to the information stored on mainframes. This sensitive data includes transactions from banks, trade secrets, and essential applications and workflows. Data privacy is particularly important in regulated industries, such as the medical field, as heavy fines result when this information is accessed without authorisation.
The importance of maintaining complete data protection in a mainframe
Security vulnerabilities come in many forms, from newly discovered exploits to employees who don't understand potential cybersecurity threats. Complete data protection is a necessary measure to stop vulnerabilities from compromising the heart of a network. Hackers can delete or steal sensitive data, disrupt complete systems or pretend to be a user that they're not to gain access to parts of the network. They do this by giving their user accounts elevated permissions, adding their own code onto the mainframe, and stop network monitoring and other security measures.
Complete data protection includes data integrity and privacy. Without both of these components, the cybersecurity measures that are in place are not sufficient to properly protect against attack methods or unintentional intrusions. If this data is exposed without authorisation, the consequences can be significant. Financial transaction data from banks is one of the most common use cases for mainframes. If that system gets breached, then hackers could change the amounts for each transaction, where they're going, or any number of problematic actions.
How to protect mainframes
Protecting mainframes requires a multi-faceted, proactive approach to cover all angles. In today's business environment, security vulnerabilities come in many forms, from malicious internal actors to zero-day exploits that spread rapidly throughout the network.
One of the first ways to keep mainframes safe is to check whether the developers working on this system follow system integrity standards, and they have secure network protocols. IBM has a System Integrity Statement that acts as a great set of guidelines for development teams to follow. It goes over best practices that take a security-first approach to building applications on mainframe hardware. A business only needs to fail to address a mainframe vulnerability once for disaster to strike. If companies lose essential data and are unable to depend on such an important system, then it could lead to massive financial losses or even bankruptcy.
A company's first step should be scanning all software and systems for vulnerabilities that could impact the mainframe. This scan goes beyond simply looking at their own systems. Any vendor or other external partner that's supplying applications and similar services needs a thorough scan as well. After the initial scan, it's important to schedule this type of monitoring on a regular basis. Potential exploits and vulnerabilities change on a daily basis, so it's essential to be proactive and stay one step ahead of bad actors. A recommended schedule for scanning is doing so after significant changes to the mainframe, such as an operating system upgrade or applying a security patch.
After the scan, touch base with all of the vendors with software present on the mainframe. Check that they have gone through vulnerability scanning for their code, as an unsecure application can lead to many problems on this system. Drop any mainframe vendors that don't have a strong commitment to complete data protection. Do the same with the applications developed in-house. Sometimes code hides unpleasant surprises, especially if it's older. Programming best practices from that period may not apply in the current cybersecurity landscape.
Security policies and procedures are another essential step in ensuring complete data protection for the mainframe systems. By following cybersecurity best practices, the potential for intentional or unintentional damage to occur to mainframe systems is decreased. In some industries, guidelines and regulations are available that go over minimum security standards. While the exact policies and procedures vary based on how the organisation is structured and the IT resources it has available, a proactive approach in training employees about cybersecurity requirements, a procedure for responding to cyber attacks, and policies that guide system administrators with IT security measures are three components that must be included.
Privacy and data integrity are the two most important things that businesses can have on a mainframe. Without these two components, it's impossible to know whether the data that's transmitted actually matches the information on the mainframe. Trying to operate a business under those conditions is difficult, if not impossible. Compliance with important regulations also becomes impossible without knowing that the privacy and data integrity remains in place.
Editor's note: This article is brought to you in association with Surfshark.