What Is Access Control?

Regulating who can access information in a network environment is essential for data security, and that’s where access control comes in.

Dusan Vasic Image
Updated:

October 05,2022

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Have you ever wondered what access control is? It’s a term you may have heard before but do not know exactly what it means. Access control is the process of managing who has access to resources and systems within a network or organization. This can include everything from files and folders to email accounts and servers. 

By controlling access, administrators can ensure that only authorized users can view or use sensitive information. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at what access control is and how it works. We’ll also discuss some standard methods for implementing it in an organization.

Access Control Definition and How it Works

Protecting systems from unauthorized users, such as hackers, is a necessity in the modern age. In 2022, hacking attacks have stolen vast amounts of user data from several online platforms and millions of dollars’ worth of cryptocurrencies.

In the IT industry, access control is often implemented through passwords, user accounts, authentication, and permissions. By restricting access to only those with the proper credentials, companies can safeguard their data and prevent unauthorized individuals from accessing and exploiting restricted information. 

In addition to passwords and user accounts, access control can also be implemented through other means, such as blocking specific IP addresses and other means of authentication. By requiring users to verify their permission to access certain information, companies can ensure that only authorized individuals can view or modify critical data. 

Access Control Components

Access control is ensured through several processes.  

Authentication

Authentication is the process of verifying that someone is who they say they are. This typically involves a username and password, but can also include other forms of verification such as biometrics (face recognition and fingerprint scanning). 

Authorization

Authorization is an added level of security to user authentication. 

The most common one is two-factor authentication (2FA). When prompted, you need to input a random string of six numbers, which changes every few seconds and is generated through applications such as Google Authenticator. Tokens, PINs, or biometrics can also be used as an additional security layer. 

Logical access control systems evaluate such credentials and limit access to specific data, networks, and system files.

Access

Access is the actual granting of permission to use a system or view data. This permission can be given manually by an administrator or automated through an electronic access control system. 

Manage

Any organization can manage who has access to which of its systems and data. This includes keeping track of when permissions are added or revoked and ensuring that only authorized users have access to the information systems they need. 

Such tasks are complex in current IT environments, especially since the infrastructure comprises hybrid systems, including both localized and cloud infrastructure. 

Audit

Through auditing, administrators periodically review the access control security to ensure that it works properly and that all users have the appropriate permissions. 

This usually involves generating reports showing who has access to what systems and data and then comparing those reports to the actual permissions granted. As a result, they can discover potential breaches

Types of Access Control

There are several different access control types, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. No matter which access control models you’re using, choosing one that meets your organization’s needs while also providing the highest possible level of security is essential.

Discretionary Access Control (DAC)

Discretionary access control is the most commonly used, and it is what most people think of when they hear the term "access control." DAC allows each user to set their own permissions, and it is typically used in home and small office networks. However, DAC can be difficult to manage in larger environments, and it is not as secure as some of the other types of access control. 

Network Access Control (NAC)

Network access control represents a security approach that aims to control which users and devices have access to a specific network. In most cases, this pertains to the administration of company networks in an effort to reduce the risks of unauthorized users or cyber attackers accessing sensitive data or causing damage to the organization.

 Attribute-Based Access Control (ABAC)

Attribute-based access control is a relatively new type of access control that offers a more flexible and granular approach. ABAC uses attributes - such as the user’s location or the time of day - to determine whether or not they should have access to a particular resource. 

For example, a user might only be able to access certain files during business hours or when they are physically on-site. ABAC can be used in conjunction with other types of access control or it can be used on its own. 

Such systems are great for organizations handling PII (personally identifiable information) and data protected under regulations such as HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) or CUI (Controlled Unclassified Information). 

Mandatory Access Control (MAC)

Mandatory access control is a much more secure access control policy, but it is also much more difficult to implement. MAC requires that all users be assigned a “security level” and that they only have access to resources that are at or below their security level. MAC is typically applied by a central authority. 

Role-Based Access Control (RBAC)

Role-based access control is becoming increasingly popular in enterprise environments. RBAC allows administrators to assign roles to users, and those roles determine what resources the user has access to. For example, a user might have the “sales” role, which gives them access to customer data but not financial data. 

Rule-Based Access Control

Rule-based access control is similar to MAC in that it uses security levels but also allows for more granular control over who has access to what resources and when. 

Access Control Systems Implementation

Many access control software solutions and hardware devices are available on the market. The one you choose will depend on the needs and logistics of your organization, but there are a few that are generally helpful to have in place.

Identity and Access Management (IAM) software is designed to help organizations manage user identities and permissions. IAM solutions typically include features such as Single Sign-On (SSO), which allows users to access multiple applications with one set of credentials, and provisioning, which automatically creates and assigns permissions to new users. 

IAM solutions can be deployed on-premises or in the cloud, and they are often used in conjunction with other security systems for access control, such as firewalls and intrusion detection systems.

A VPN (virtual private network) is a great way to provide secure access to your network resources. A VPN allows you to create a secure connection between your organization’s network and the public internet. This can be helpful for remote users who need to access sensitive data or systems, or for organizations that need to connect to a cloud infrastructure. 

Password management tools are another essential part of a strong security policy. These tools allow administrators to manage passwords for all users in an organization and ensure that passwords are complex and changed regularly. Password management tools also help to mitigate the risk of password theft and brute force attacks. 

Security policy enforcement tools are also essential to control user access to the computer network and data. A good security enforcement software will define which systems and data are accessible to which users, and it will outline the procedures that users must follow when accessing the company data.

These tools can monitor user activity and identify potential threats or policy violations. Such software should also include provisions for incident response and disaster recovery.

FAQ
What is meant by access control?

In terms of IT infrastructure, access control refers to the process of limiting access to systems, data, or resources. This is usually done through authentication and authorization mechanisms. 

Physical access control would also be an example of this, like limiting access to a building or facility to authorized personnel. Data security, on the other hand, would be more concerned with who is allowed to see or modify data stored on systems and under what conditions.

What are access control examples?

Some examples of access control are:

  • Using a password or PIN to unlock a device
  • Using fingerprints or face recognition to unlock a device
  • Using two-factor authentication (2FA)
What is access control, and why is it important?

Access control is a security measure that limits access to systems, data, or resources. This is usually done through different security mechanisms. Access control is important because it helps to protect sensitive information from being accessed by unauthorized users.

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