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Pwning a mainframe: How to penetrate a "most secure" height on Earth

You know what aren’t “sexy” for confidence researchers? Mainframes.

These high-performance systems typically designed for large-scale computing are a final citadel of confidence contrast and investigate since typically they’re deliberate to be a many secure height on Earth. It’s because these systems are during a heart of roughly each vicious transaction that typical people rest on each day — including bank hoop transfers and ATM transactions, engagement flights, and doing millions of payments during sell outlets around a world.



IBM Z, a many secure mainframe to date?

IBM Z, a next-generation mainframe, can hoop 12 billion encrypted exchange a day.

But what doesn’t assistance a interest is that mainframes are notoriously formidable to get entrance to, creation confidence contrast difficult, if not impossible.

Ayoub Elaassal, a confidence auditor during consulting organisation Wavestone, was one of a propitious few who were means to entrance a mainframe for an audit. It was using z/OS, a specialized handling complement built by IBM for a z Series machines.

It didn’t take him too prolonged to find a disadvantage that, if exploited, could have given him base entrance to a mainframe and a vital, supportive data.

“We could potentially concede a whole system, and to whatever we wish — like intercepting exchange and arising hoop transfers,” he told me on a phone final week.

Elaassal found that pivotal complement libraries, or directories — famous as certified module comforts (APFs), could in many cases be updated by any of a mainframe’s users. By his estimate, as many as half of all audits uncover permitted updatable libraries, he said, and therefore put influenced mainframes during risk of attack.

Elaassal wrote several scripts that can expand a user’s privileges to a top “root” level. One of a scripts compiles a cargo and places it into one of these supportive directories, effectively apropos a devoted partial of a complement itself. The antagonistic cargo afterwards flips some bytes and grants a user “root” or “special” privileges on a mainframe.

“Once we have that kind of precedence — that backdoor — we can do whatever we want,” he explained. “You can change memory, we devaluate users, close down a appurtenance — we can do anything.”

Elaassal was set to give a speak during a Black Hat discussion in Las Vegas, though was denied entrance to a US. His collection are open-source and are permitted on GitHub.

The good news is that it’s not a totally wordless attack. Because a book changes a user’s permission, that’s something that a association should safeguard it monitors, pronounced Elaassal.

“With a tool, we only get root,” he said. “If someone becomes an admin all of a remarkable during 5 am, that isn’t normal.”


IBM z Series mainframe. (Image: record photo)

Elaassal pronounced that a hazard is singular to those with entrance to a mainframe, though remarkable that anyone with remote entrance could lift out a payoff escalation attack, including remote or bend bureau staff. “You don’t need to be physically during a mainframe,” he said. “When we go to a bank, each bank representative has entrance to a mainframe.”

“If it’s a bank, we can do hoop transfers, income laundering, supplement 0 to a bank account,” he said. “You can close down a mainframe and remove a bank income — genuine money, that can be millions for a large bank.”

With base privileges, he said, “you could erase everything.”

we asked him because afterwards he would recover collection that would expand a user’s privileges to a deleterious level. He pronounced a responsibility of ensuring obliged user permissions and mainframe confidence lands precisely with a owner, and not something that IBM can simply fix.

“Security on a mainframe used to be a man with a gun,” he joked. “Now, these supportive systems files are permitted by default by hundreds of thousands of users on a mainframe.”

“Companies find it tough and time immoderate to set adult correct fine-grain manners to conclude accurately who gets entrance to what,” he added. “They customarily get divided with ‘nobody knows how to penetrate it anyway, so because bother?’ Now they can’t contend that anymore.”

“It’s unequivocally in a hands of a business to control access,” he said.


Contact me securely

Zack Whittaker can be reached firmly on Signal and WhatsApp during 646-755–8849, and his PGP fingerprint for email is: 4D0E 92F2 E36A EC51 DAAE 5D97 CB8C 15FA EB6C EEA5.

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