What Is Access Control? An Essential Cybersecurity Practice

Access control, or identity and access management (IAM), is about securing users’ rights to view, change, or download information in computer systems.

Access-control systems typically rely on creating an access policy that defines user rights for specific resources in a system based on certain conditions. When these conditions are met, the user is granted access to the resource.

The essential function of an IAM system is to ensure that when someone tries to get into a particular resource, they meet those prior conditions. This act of checking whether the attempted action meets the specified criteria before allowing or denying access is called authentication.

What is Access Control?

Access control is a practice of limiting access to a system, resource, or data to authorized users only. This includes the processes and controls used to determine which users are granted access and the physical means of restricting access. In other words, it’s a set of security rules that regulate who can do what with which resources and when they can do those things.

In digital settings, this often requires specific credentials or permissions from end-users before allowing them to perform certain operations on a system, such as connecting it to the internet or downloading sensitive information. It also consists of controls placed on these systems by owners and admins, preventative measures taken beforehand, and detective measures employed after detecting something suspicious.

How Does Access Control Work?

Access control is assigning permissions to users, applications, and devices. These permissions define what activities can be performed on assets, such as files and folders, databases, servers, application settings, processes and threads, and more.

  • Access control helps maintain the confidentiality (by restricting access), integrity (by detecting tampering), and availability (by preventing disruptions) of resources.
  • The essential principle behind access control is that it restricts where and how data can be accessed to only those permitted to do so, limiting any potential damage caused by unauthorized or inappropriate use of information systems.
  • This is important considering that today’s cyber attackers no longer attempt to steal or delete data outright.

Access control models occur in three stages:

1. Identification

The process of ascertaining user identity.

2. Authentication

Proves the user’s authenticity when it comes to identification.

3. Authorization

It gives users specific permissions or rights in a system after being authenticated. Authentication must be paired with authorization to provide adequate control.

Also check: How To Manage Third-Party Risk

Access Control

What Security Measures Can Access Control Cover?

Authorization represents one of many cyber security measures that access control can use. An organization that decides to take should depend mainly on their resources and how much they’re willing to secure their information.

For example, some organizations opt for no additional security after authentication is complete, while others decide that it’s necessary to implement encryption to keep that data safe. As the field evolves, so will how companies approach their cybersecurity practices. As long as systems store sensitive information, there will always be a need for security.

What are the Types of Access Control?

There are many different types of access control. Still, the main ones are role-based control, attribute-based control, discretionary access control, and mandatory control.

1. Role-Based Control

Role-based or group-based controls are used to allow or deny users’ privileges to resources in an organization. These roles usually have a hierarchy, with managers having broader powers than subordinates.

2. Discretionary Control

Discretionary Access Controls (DAC) is a model where subjects may grant privileges to other subjects; the granter may be the owner of the resource, or any individual has permitted by the owner.

The DAC model protects objects by allowing subjects that create them (the owners) the authority to control such objects as who can access them (the creator typically has full control). Subjects having only the minimum privilege required to access an object is one of the distinguishing features of DAC.

3. Mandatory Control

The mandatory access control (MAC) model controls how subjects and objects interact through discretionary access. It is by using security labels, which contain classification and other security attributes.

This model uses labels (data based on sensitivity and requirements for handling). That consists of a mandatory label, a sensitivity label, and a non-discrimination or contextual rule that governs how they may be combined.

4. Rule-Based Control

Rule-Based Controls require that subjects take action that has permitted by each allowed combination of rules before being granted access to objects by these rules. Usually, subjects are identified by their attributes, and the rules only grant or deny access based on these.

5. Attribute-Based Control

Attribute-Based Access Controls (ABAC) is a form of control that relies on attribute-based credentials for its foundation. Attributes are any information that can distinguish an individual.

Attributes may consist of personal data such as name, social security number, date of birth, etc., professional data such as academic qualifications, employment history, etc., biometric data such as fingerprints, iris patterns, voice patterns, etc., behavioral data such as gait analysis or keystroke dynamics or location tracking. Also, there is physical access control and electronic control as well for system resources.

Fingerprint Biometric Digital Scan Technology. Graphic interface showing man finger with print scanning identification. Concept of digital security and private data access by use fingerprint scanner.

Why Is It Important?

Access control is a broad topic, but the best answer to this question can be summed up in one word: trust. The control helps individuals and organizations maintain a level of trust in their systems and resources.

Without knowing who can access what information, where it is stored, and how it will be used, the system cannot function correctly.

But why does management need to concern itself with security?

There are two main reasons.

  1. The first reason is that successful attacks by hackers on computer systems have become increasingly common. These kinds of attacks can affect not only personal computers (PCs) but also servers and networks.
  2. The second reason is that allowing uncontrolled access to the system and its resources can lead to an environment where company employees, affiliates, and customers do not feel safe. They cannot trust that their actions will remain private, cannot be sure that the system will function correctly. Also, one cannot rely on the fact that others’ actions will not interfere with theirs.

Summing Up

Access control is an essential practice that every company should have in place. It’s essential to understand the basics of access control so you can be sure your business has it covered. If you’ve read this article, then hopefully, by now, you have a better understanding of what access control is and why it’s an essential cybersecurity practice. Be sure to implement an access control system for your website or company for the best results.

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