What Is Access Control? The Beginners Guide


11th April, 2024


Access control is essential for ensuring the right individual has appropriate access rights and promptly revoking unnecessary permissions. This makes understanding access control crucial for maintaining a strong security posture. In this article, we'll thoroughly explore access control, starting from its definition to proven ways to effectively implement it. 

In mid-size and large organizations, monitoring multiple user access and ensuring they have appropriate permissions becomes an extreme challenge for IT teams. The sheer scale and complexity inherent in these environments make it increasingly difficult to clearly understand who possesses what level of access rights and whether their permissions are necessary for their role.

Thus, these gaps in oversight introduce potential vulnerabilities, creating opportunities for security breaches. This is precisely where the strategic implementation of access control becomes indispensable. But what exactly is access control?

What Is Access Control?

Access control refers to the practices and technologies used to manage and determine who can access and use company data, apps, systems, and other resources. It implements authentication and authorization mechanisms to help your IT team verify users' identities, ensuring they are who they claim to be before granting them access to the organization's resources. Also, it makes sure to restrict unauthorized access, preventing security breaches and safeguarding sensitive data.

Moreover, your IT team can establish a layered defense mechanism by implementing access control and creating a secure and well-governed data and digital assets environment.

How Does Access Control Work?

Access control authenticates users by verifying various login credentials, including usernames and passwords, PINs, biometric scans, and security tokens. Many systems also incorporate multi-factor authentication (MFA), which mandates users to verify their identity multiple times in different ways to gain access.

After successful authentication, the access control system determines and grants the user a suitable level of access to resources and permits actions based on the permissions associated with that user's credentials and IP address. In simpler terms, once the system confirms who the user is, it checks what they can do and what resources they are allowed to access according to the predefined rules and permissions in the access control system.

Types Of Access Control Methods

There are four primary types of access control models or methods, with organizations selecting the most suitable method based on their specific security and compliance needs:

  • Discretionary access control (DAC): In this method, the admin of the protected system, data, or resource establishes the access policies, determining who is allowed access to what.

  • Mandatory access control (MAC): This non-discretionary method grants access based on information clearance, regulated by a central authority according to different security levels. This method is prevalent in government and military environments.

  • Role-based access control (RBAC): Access is granted based on defined business functions rather than individual user identities. RBAC aims to provide users with access only to the data deemed necessary for their roles within the organization. This widely used method relies on a complex combination of role assignments, authorizations, and permissions.

  • Attribute-based access control (ABAC): ABAC is a dynamic method that determines access based on a set of attributes and environmental conditions, such as time of day and location, assigned to both users and resources.

Core Components Of Access Control

The core principles of access control, namely authentication, authorization, and auditing, play crucial roles in maintaining a robust access control framework.

1: Authentication

Gone are the days of relying solely on passwords to secure your systems. Enter multi-factor authentication (MFA), the game-changer in identity verification. By combining multiple authentication factors like passwords, smart cards, tokens, and biometric data, MFA creates an impenetrable fortress against unauthorized access. Even if one layer is compromised with MFA, the fortress remains impenetrable.

Moreover, adaptive authentication takes this a step further. It dynamically adjusts the level of authentication based on risk factors such as user behavior, device characteristics, and network information. With adaptive authentication, your access controls evolve in real-time, adapting to emerging threats and ensuring that only legitimate users gain entry.

2: Authorization

Roles and groups are no longer sufficient to define access privileges. It's time to embrace attribute-based access control (ABAC) for unmatched granularity. ABAC allows you to establish access policies based on user attributes, environmental conditions, and resource characteristics. Want to restrict access to sensitive data only during certain hours or from specific locations? ABAC empowers you to do just that.

To further fortify your defenses, just-in-time (JIT) access and privileged access management (PAM) practices are your secret weapons. JIT access ensures that users are granted access only when needed, reducing the attack surface and mitigating the risk of compromised credentials. PAM enables you to control privileged accounts tightly, ensuring that only authorized personnel can execute critical actions. By adopting JIT access and PAM, you gain unparalleled control and minimize the risk of unauthorized activity.

3: Auditing

Auditing is not merely a compliance checkbox; it's your window into your system's health and security. Advanced log analysis tools armed with machine learning algorithms offer a proactive approach to security. They detect patterns and anomalies in log data, allowing you to identify potential threats or policy violations before they wreak havoc.

To comprehensively view your security landscape, harness the power of security information and event management (SIEM) solutions. These sophisticated systems collect and correlate log data from various sources, providing real-time incident detection and response. With SIEM, you can thwart attacks before they gain traction, safeguarding your organization's vital assets.

Remember to implement a centralized logging system with clear log retention policies, ensuring the integrity and availability of your audit trails. Encryption and tamper-evident measures add an extra layer of protection against unauthorized tampering.

After going through the basics of access control, you might wonder what the actual purpose is. Let's find out.  

Purpose Of Access Control

The primary purpose of access control is to protect valuable digital or physical assets by ensuring that only authorized individuals have access. By implementing access control mechanisms, you and your teams can:

  • Safeguard sensitive data and resources from unauthorized access, reducing the risk of data breaches and intellectual property theft.

  • Mitigate insider threats by controlling access based on job roles, responsibilities, and clearance levels.

  • Ensure compliance with industry regulations and privacy laws.

  • Enhance overall security posture and protect against evolving cyber threats.

  • Establish audit trails and accountability by tracking the history of users' activities and maintaining a record of access attempts.

    Let's now explore access control's importance and the domain where it stands out as a robust safety safeguard.

Why Is Access Control Important?

Access control safeguards sensitive information, such as customer data, personally identifiable information, and intellectual property, preventing unauthorized access. It incorporates a zero-trust security framework, which employs diverse mechanisms to continuously validate access to the corporate network. 

Moreover, without proper access control in place, organizations are at risk of experiencing data leakage. These threats can arise from both internal sources within the organization, such as employees accessing data they shouldn't, and external threats, like hackers gaining unauthorized access. Access control acts as a protective mechanism to prevent such risks by defining and regulating who has access to systems, specific data, and resources within the organization.

Furthermore, access control is especially crucial for organizations operating in hybrid cloud and multi-cloud environments, where resources, applications, and data are distributed across on-premises and cloud platforms. 

In short, access control helps make the security of these environments more robust and resilient. Additionally, it helps reduce the risk of unauthorized access, especially from devices that are not managed by the organization (unmanaged devices) and those that employees bring into the workplace (bring-your-own devices or BYO devices). Access control ensures higher protection against unauthorized entry and potential security threats in diverse and complex computing environments. Not only that, but it also helps meet various regulatory compliances. 

Let's explore different domains where access control is a highly effective safety measure.

Importance of Access Control In Different Domains

Access control is critical in different domains. Some of them are:

  • Information Technology (IT): Access control is crucial in IT to protect sensitive data, networks, and systems. By implementing strict authentication and defining access privileges based on roles or attributes, organizations prevent unauthorized access, reduce data breach risks, ensure regulatory compliance, and preserve IT infrastructure integrity.

  • Physical Security: Access control goes beyond digital realms and secures physical environments. It enforces physical access control, restricts entry to secure facilities, manages visitor access, and safeguards sensitive areas. Technologies like smart cards, biometrics, and surveillance systems protect against unauthorized personnel.

  • Healthcare: Access control maintains patient privacy and secures electronic health records (EHRs) in healthcare. Authorized personnel can access patient information by implementing access control measures, minimizing data breaches, and complying with industry standards and privacy regulations like HIPAA.

  • Finance and Banking: Access control is paramount in finance and banking to safeguard financial data and customer information. Robust measures like multi-factor authentication protect customer accounts, prevent unauthorized transactions, and mitigate identity theft, fraud, and security risks. Compliance with regulations such as PCI DSS is also ensured.

Now, let's proceed further and explore the best practices for access control.

Access Control Best Practices

Below are some of the proven access control best practices that can help you ensure a secure and efficient IT environment.

1: Implementing the principle of least privilege

The principle of least privilege (PoLP) access control policy should be at the core of access control practices. It involves granting users the minimum permissions necessary to perform their tasks effectively. By implementing PoLP, IT teams can reduce the risk of unauthorized access, limit the potential damage caused by insider threats, and minimize the impact of security breaches.

To further enhance this practice, you and your teams should regularly review and update user privileges based on their roles and responsibilities. This ensures that access rights remain aligned with your business needs and reduces the risk of privilege creep, where users accumulate unnecessary privileges over time.

2: Establishing a systematic process for access control review & audit

Access control reviews and audits play a crucial role in maintaining the effectiveness of security measures. By establishing a systematic process, IT teams can regularly evaluate and monitor access controls to identify any vulnerabilities or weaknesses. This includes reviewing user permissions, group memberships, and access logs to detect any unauthorized or abnormal activities.

To improve this practice, you should consider implementing automated tools or solutions to streamline the access control review process. These tools can help identify and flag any discrepancies or violations, enabling prompt remediation actions.

3: Implementing separation of duties to prevent unauthorized access

Separation of duties (SoD) access control policy involves distributing critical tasks and responsibilities among multiple individuals to prevent a single person from having complete control and authority. By implementing SoD, IT teams minimize the risk of unauthorized access and fraud, as collusion between multiple parties becomes more challenging.

To strengthen SoD practice, you should clearly define and document the roles and responsibilities of each user. This ensures that no single individual possesses excessive privileges or can bypass necessary checks and balances. Regularly reviewing and updating these role definitions further enhances the effectiveness of SoD.

4: Employing strong authentication & authorization mechanisms

Robust authentication and authorization mechanisms are fundamental to access control. To verify user identities, IT teams should employ multi-factor authentication (MFA) tools, which combine multiple factors like passwords, biometrics, and tokens. This significantly reduces the risk of unauthorized access, especially in the event of compromised credentials.

Additionally, you should implement granular authorization policies based on the principle of least privilege. This ensures that users can only access the resources required to fulfill their specific roles and responsibilities. Regularly reviewing and updating these authorization policies is essential to maintain the integrity of access controls.

5: Opt for an access management solution to enforce access control

Enforcing access control in today's dynamic environment can pose several challenges; for instance, IT teams need to thoroughly understand their user types, level of access, who to restrict, when to review, and more. So, by opting for an effective access management platform like Zluri, you no longer have to struggle to enforce access control. What is Zluri? How does it work?

Zluri provides an access management solution that enables your IT team to enforce access control seamlessly. It ensures that only the right individuals gain access to organizations' SaaS apps and data, which further helps minimize the risk of potential security breaches. Also, Zluri continuously monitors access control to verify its proper implementation. This way, your team can effectively manage, control, and govern user access rights within your organization without missing out on any critical steps. Let's see how Zluri implements an access management policy.

  • Assign Access Based On Roles

With Zluri's access management, your team can set access policies (RBAC) to specify which app, data, or resources each role can access. This helps ensure that users within a particular role can access the SaaS apps and data necessary for their job title while adhering to security guidelines.

  • Separate Individual's Duties

Zluri helps your IT team separate duties, thereby eliminating the potential for manipulation during decision-making processes. This strategy safeguards and prevents issues like granting excessive permissions, over-provisioning, and conflicts of interest.

  • Grant Limited Level Of Access Permissions To Employees

Upon onboarding, your IT team can verify every new employee's identity and grant them limited privileges to systems, SaaS apps, and data, as per their role, position, and department. This further helps your team ensure that only the right individuals have access to applications with the right level of permissions and minimizes the risk of unauthorized access.

  • Provides Just-In-Time Access

Zluri allows your IT team to securely grant employees temporary or just-in-time access to necessary applications for a specified period. Once that time is up, Zluri automatically revokes the access without any delays using its auto-remediation feature. Your IT team doesn't need to manually track and revoke access.

Note: For critical applications requiring extra precaution, your IT team can manually revoke access if needed.

  • Conducts Routine Audits To Review The Access Policy Implementation & Ensure Compliance

Zluri conducts regular/periodic reviews and audits to ensure access management policies are effectively implemented. If any violation occurs, your IT team and reviewers can run deprovisioning playbooks or modify access playbooks. This way, your team can revoke or modify access level permissions that don't align with the access policy.

Furthermore, Zluri also documents the entire audit process and generates audit logs and reports to show as evidence that your IT team has implemented the access policy without fail. This helps meet stringent compliance requirements like SOX and ISO 27000. The above policies are one of the security requirements.

Book a demo now and view all the other exquisite capabilities of Zluri's access control.       

Maintain Data Integrity & Well-Governed Access Environment By Enforcing Access Control

In conclusion, access control is essential to robust security frameworks, ensuring that organizations' security teams can manage and regulate user access to sensitive data and resources. By aligning with strategic goals, selecting suitable solutions, implementing strong policies, and adhering to best practices, businesses can strengthen their defenses against potential threats and unauthorized access.

Also, access control not only safeguards against data breaches but enhances productivity, streamlines operations, and fosters a secure digital environment. Moreover, in today's dynamic and interconnected digital landscape, understanding and implementing access control is imperative for organizations seeking to uphold the integrity and confidentiality of their valuable information.

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