Access Management

Access Control in Security: Methods and Best Practices

What Is Access Control in Security? 

Access control is a crucial component of information technology (IT) and cybersecurity. It is a mechanism that regulates who or what can view, use, or access a particular resource in a computing environment. The primary goal is to minimize security risks by ensuring only authorized users, systems, or services have access to the resources they need.

Access control is not just about allowing or denying access. It involves identifying an individual or system, authenticating their identity, authorizing them to access the resource, and auditing their access patterns. This process minimizes the risk of unauthorized access, protecting sensitive information and systems.

Modern IT infrastructure and work patterns are creating new access control challenges. Trends like the use of cloud computing, the growing use of mobile devices in the workplace, and the transition to remove work, mean that the number of access points to an organization is growing exponentially. New technologies like identity and access management (IAM) and approaches like zero trust are helping manage this complexity and prevent unauthorized access.

In this article:

Why Is Access Control Important? 

Cybercriminals are becoming more sophisticated, utilizing advanced techniques to breach security systems and gain unauthorized access to resources.

Access control is a proactive security measure that helps deter, detect, and prevent unauthorized access. By controlling who or what has access to a resource, it ensures that only those with the necessary permissions can access the data or service. This significantly reduces the risk of a security breach, both from external attackers and insider threats.

Moreover, access control in security is crucial for compliance with various regulatory requirements. Regulations such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) require organizations to implement stringent access control measures to protect personal data. Non-compliance can result in severe penalties and reputational damage.

How Does Access Control Work? 5 Key Components 

Here is the general process involved in securing access and managing access control within an organization.

1. Authentication

Authentication is the first step in access control. It involves verifying the identity of the user or system requesting access. This is usually done by matching the provided credentials with the stored information. Authentication methods include password-based, biometric-based, and certificate-based authentication.

2. Authorization

Authorization follows successful authentication. It involves granting or denying access based on the user’s or system’s privileges. The privileges are predefined and dictate what resources the user or system can access and to what extent. Authorization helps in maintaining the principle of least privilege, ensuring users and systems have only the access they need.

3. Access

Access refers to the actual use or interaction with a resource. This could involve viewing, modifying, or deleting data, or using a service. The extent of access is dictated by the authorization process. Access is monitored and controlled to prevent unauthorized activities.

4. Manage

Management of access control involves maintaining and updating the access control system. This includes defining and updating access policies, managing user credentials, onboarding and offboarding users, and maintaining the access control hardware and software. Effective management ensures the access control system remains robust and up-to-date.

5. Audit

Auditing is an essential component of access control. It involves monitoring and recording access patterns and activities. Auditing helps in identifying any unusual or suspicious activities and aids in forensic investigations. Regular audits can reveal security vulnerabilities and help improve the access control system.

Learn more in our detailed guide to identity management system 

Types of Security Access Controls 

There are several technical approaches to managing access control. Here are the main ones:

Role-Based Access Control (RBAC)

Role-Based Access Control, or RBAC, is an access control framework that assigns system access rights and permissions to users based on their roles within an organization. For instance, a financial analyst in a company might have access to sensitive financial data but would not have the same access to the company’s HR records. RBAC is widely adopted due to its simplicity and ease of administration.

Attribute-Based Access Control (ABAC)

Attribute-Based Access Control, abbreviated as ABAC, is a security framework that uses a set of policies to grant or deny access to resources. These policies are based on attributes, which can include user attributes (like role or location), resource attributes (like the type of information), and environment conditions (like time or network location). ABAC is dynamic and flexible, making it suitable for complex environments where access decisions need to consider a multitude of factors.

Discretionary Access Control (DAC)

Discretionary Access Control (DAC) is a method that grants access rights based on rules specified by users. In DAC, the owner of the information or resource decides who can access specific resources. This model provides flexibility and individual control, but it also comes with risks as users might inadvertently grant access to those who should not have it.

Mandatory Access Control (MAC)

Mandatory Access Control, or MAC, is an approach where access is granted or denied based on the information’s classification and the user’s security clearance level. It is widely used in organizations handling highly classified and sensitive data, like military institutions or government agencies. MAC is rigid and highly secure, but it can be complex to implement and manage.

Policy-Based Access Control (PBAC)

Policy-Based Access Control, or PBAC, is an access control model that determines access based on a set of policies that define allowable actions within a system. PBAC policies are often complex, involving a combination of rules, roles, attributes, and environmental factors. This model allows for fine-grained access control, enabling administrators to manage access based on the specific needs of the organization and the context of the access request. While PBAC is fairly similar to ABAC, it is easier to implement and requires less IT and development resources.

Challenges of Access Control in Cybersecurity 

Distributed IT Environments and the Adoption of Cloud Computing

The proliferation of distributed IT environments and the widespread adoption of cloud computing have significantly impacted access control in cybersecurity. In a distributed IT environment, resources are spread across multiple locations, including on-premises data centers and various cloud services. This dispersion of resources creates a complex network of access points, each requiring robust access control mechanisms. 

With cloud computing, organizations rely on external providers for infrastructure, platforms, or software services. This reliance introduces external access points that must be secured, making the enforcement of consistent access control policies across different environments challenging. 

Effective access control in such scenarios requires a comprehensive understanding of the cloud service models (IaaS, PaaS, SaaS) and the specific security responsibilities assigned to the provider and the organization. Additionally, the use of cloud access security brokers (CASBs) and robust identity and access management (IAM) solutions can help enforce uniform access control policies across distributed and cloud environments.

The Rise of Mobility and Remote Work

The rise of mobility and remote work has introduced new challenges in access control. With an increasing number of employees working remotely, often using their own devices (BYOD), the traditional perimeter-based security model becomes less effective. Remote workers need to access corporate resources from various locations and devices, expanding the potential attack surface. 

To address these challenges, organizations are adopting technologies like virtual private networks (VPNs), which secure remote connections, and employing endpoint security solutions to protect individual devices. Another critical aspect is the implementation of context-aware access control, where access decisions are based not only on user identity but also on factors such as device security posture, location, and time of access.

Password Fatigue

The concept of password fatigue refers to the challenge users experience when they have to remember multiple passwords for different applications. This is a significant issue for access control in security.

Password fatigue can lead to users adopting poor password practices, such as using weak passwords or reusing the same password across multiple applications. This can significantly weaken an organization’s security posture and make it easier for attackers to gain unauthorized access to sensitive resources. Moreover, password fatigue can also lead to increased help desk calls for password resets, which can be a drain on IT resources.

Separate Identity Silos and Lack of Centralized User Directory

In many organizations, different departments or systems may maintain their own user databases, leading to disparate identity silos. This fragmentation makes it difficult to manage user identities and access rights consistently across the organization. It also complicates the process of onboarding and offboarding employees, as changes in one system might not be reflected in others. 

To overcome these challenges, organizations are increasingly adopting centralized identity management solutions. These solutions provide a unified view of user identities and access rights across all systems and applications. Centralized identity management not only simplifies administration but also enhances security by ensuring consistent enforcement of access policies and reducing the risk of orphaned accounts or inconsistent access rights.

Lack of Data Governance and Visibility

Data governance refers to the overall management of the availability, usability, integrity, and security of the data employed in an enterprise. A crucial component of this is access control.

However, achieving effective data governance can be challenging. It requires consistent reporting to provide visibility into who has access to what data, when they accessed it, and what they did with it. This can be a complex and time-consuming task, particularly in large or complex environments.

Managing Multi-Tenancy and Complex Permissions in SaaS Applications

Software as a Service (SaaS) applications are becoming increasingly prevalent in business environments. While they offer many benefits, such as scalability and cost savings, they also present unique challenges when it comes to access control in security.

One of these challenges is managing multi-tenancy. Multi-tenancy refers to a situation where multiple users or groups share the same application instance, each with their own separate and secure access.

In addition, SaaS applications often have complex permission structures that can be difficult to manage and understand. This can make it easy to accidentally grant more access than intended, potentially exposing sensitive data to unauthorized users.

The Role of Identity and Access Management (IAM)

Identity and Access Management (IAM) plays a key role in modern access control strategies within organizations. IAM systems are designed to identify, authenticate, and authorize individuals or groups of people to have access to applications, systems, or networks by associating user rights and restrictions with established identities.

IAM plays a few important roles in securing access control within modern organizations:

  • Centralization of identity management: IAM centralizes and simplifies the management of user identities. It provides a framework for managing digital identities and access rights, ensuring that only authorized individuals can access the right resources at the right times for the right reasons.
  • Facilitating user management lifecycle: IAM facilitates the entire user management lifecycle, from provisioning (creating accounts and assigning access), through to the ongoing management of user access and eventually deprovisioning (removing access and deleting accounts).
  • Enabling advanced authentication and authorization techniques: IAM systems incorporate advanced authentication and authorization techniques, such as multi-factor authentication (MFA), role-based access control (RBAC), and attribute-based access control (ABAC), to provide additional layers of security for access control.
  • Improving user experience and productivity: Beyond security, IAM solutions also enhance user experience and productivity. Single Sign-On (SSO) capabilities, for instance, allow users to access multiple applications with a single set of credentials, reducing password fatigue and streamlining the login process.

Access Control Security Best Practices 

Here are some important best practices that can make access control more secure.

Implementing multi-factor authentication

Multi-factor authentication (MFA) requires users to provide two or more verification factors to gain access to a resource. This could be something they know (like a password), something they have (like a smart card), or something they are (like a fingerprint).

By implementing MFA, you add an extra layer of security. Even if a malicious actor manages to get hold of one factor, they will still be unable to gain access without the other factors. MFA is especially useful in protecting against phishing attacks, where attackers trick users into revealing their passwords.

Implement Strong Password Policies and Consider Going Passwordless

Passwords are often the first line of defense in security. However, weak passwords can easily be guessed or cracked by attackers. Implementing strong password policies is a must. These policies should enforce the use of long, complex passwords and regular password changes.

But even strong passwords have their limitations. They can be forgotten, stolen, or even guessed. That’s why many organizations are now considering going passwordless. Passwordless authentication methods, such as social login, magic links, and biometrics, eliminate the need for passwords altogether, reducing the risk of password-related breaches.

No Shared Accounts

Shared accounts, which are used by multiple individuals or systems, are often a major security risk. They make it difficult to track user activities and hold individuals accountable for their actions. If an incident occurs, it’s almost impossible to determine who was responsible.

Instead of shared accounts, consider implementing individual user accounts. These accounts should be tied to a specific individual, making it easier to track activity and identify any potential issues. This also helps in fostering a sense of responsibility among users, as they know their activities can be traced back to them.

Even in situations where shared accounts seem inevitable, there are other ways to manage this. For instance, you could use privileged access management solutions that allow for session monitoring and logging. Such solutions give you improved visibility into who did what, and make it possible to investigate and respond to suspicious activity.

Implement the Principle of Least Privilege

The principle of least privilege (PoLP) is a computer security concept where a user is given the minimum levels of access necessary to complete his job functions. This approach minimizes the risk of malicious activities, as the access to sensitive information and systems is restricted.

The implementation of least privilege is a continuous process. It begins with a comprehensive audit of users and their access rights. Once the audit is complete, unnecessary privileges are revoked. This is followed by regular reviews and updates to ensure that the privileges remain aligned with the employees’ roles and responsibilities.

It’s not enough to just implement the principle of least privilege. You must also monitor for privilege creep, which occurs when users accumulate more access privileges over time, often exceeding what they need to perform their jobs. Regular audits and proactive management can help prevent this from happening.

Adopt a Zero Trust Paradigm

Zero trust is a security concept centered on the belief that organizations should not automatically trust anything inside or outside its perimeters and instead must verify anything and everything trying to connect to its systems before granting access.

The zero trust model operates on the principle of “never trust, always verify.” This means that every access request is thoroughly vetted, regardless of where it comes from or what resource it accesses.

Implementing zero trust requires a shift in mindset. It requires letting go of the old assumption that everything inside the network is safe. However, with the right approach and tools, it can significantly enhance your organization’s security posture.

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