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What is Access Control in Security? An In-Depth Guide to Types and Best Practices

Explore the essential role access control plays in cybersecurity, from the basics of how it works, components, and types to Zero Trust and best practices


Access control is crucial to identity and access management (IAM) strategies, helping organizations navigate modern cybersecurity challenges. However, when it comes to protecting an organization’s most sensitive information and security systems, a single misstep in access control can be devastating.

Whether you’re an IT professional tasked with managing user access, a data owner seeking to safeguard your department’s critical assets, or a C-level executive bearing the weight of your organization’s security on your shoulders, this comprehensive guide can help you traverse the complications of access control by providing you with the knowledge and guidance to fortify your security defenses, from understanding the various types of access control to implementing best practices that align with your organization’s unique needs.

How access control works

Access control operates through two primary systems: physical and logical.

  1. Physical access control uses tangible barriers, such as locks, gates, biometric scanners, and security personnel, to secure access to physical locations.
  2. Logical access control, on the other hand, uses electronic access control to secure computer networks, system files, and data.

As we’ll focus on in this guide, logical access control relies on authentication and authorization processes to verify a user’s identity and determine their level of access. Authentication confirms a user is who they claim, typically through passwords, biometric data, or security tokens.

Once authenticated, authorization mechanisms come into play, granting or restricting access rights to specific resources using rule-based access control, access control lists, predefined policies, and user roles.

Effective access control systems act as gatekeepers that protect sensitive information from unauthorized access, serving as a foundational element in a robust cybersecurity strategy.

Next, we’ll explore why prioritizing access control is not just a best practice but a necessity in today’s digital landscape.

[Read also: Are cybersecurity analytics missing from your security strategy?]

Why is access control important for cybersecurity?

It’s 2 AM. You’re wide awake instead of getting a good night’s sleep before your quarterly planning meeting. Your mind is racing, playing out scenarios of possible data breaches, financial losses, regulatory fines, and your organization’s reputation in ruins. The culprit? Inadequate access control measures that could leave your organization open to cyberattacks.

In a world where cyberattacks aren’t a matter of “if” but “when,” access control has become the frontline defense against unauthorized access, data leaks, and IT compliance nightmares. Would you be concerned if 85% of your organization’s credentials haven’t been used in the last 90 days? Now, what if they haven’t been used, and your team can’t see that information? Sleeping well now?

Cyber threats lurk at every corner, making effective access control solutions vital for reducing security risks and maintaining the integrity of your organization’s data and systems. By implementing robust access control measures, your organization can:

  • Mitigate the risk of unauthorized individuals gaining access to sensitive or confidential information, reducing the likelihood of costly data breaches
  • Minimize potential attack surfaces and vulnerabilities by enforcing the principle of least privilege and granting users access only to the resources they require
  • Maintain data privacy and confidentiality by ensuring that sensitive data is accessible only to authorized individuals
  • Meet strict information security, customer data privacy, and data protection requirements (e.g., GDPR, HIPAA, and PCI DSS)

Recognizing the significance of access control in fortifying cybersecurity is a critical step toward embracing the Zero-Trust model. This security approach hinges on the principle that trust is never assumed, and verification is mandatory, making access control an indispensable component of its architecture. Next, we’ll delve into how access control operates within the Zero-Trust framework.

The critical role access control plays in Zero Trust

Traditional perimeter-based security models (called “castle-and-moat”) are insufficient today for several reasons. For starters, the rise of remote work and cloud adoption have blurred the traditional network security perimeter. Stakeholders now access corporate resources from around the globe on multiple endpoint devices, exponentially increasing the potential attack surface and making it difficult to define and secure a clear network boundary.

Perimeter-based security models assume that everything inside the “moat” is trusted, so access is restricted using firewalls, intrusion detection systems (IDS), and virtual private networks (VPNs). Yet compromised employee devices or malicious insiders often cannot be blocked using these methods since they are already within the network. Additionally, with resources spread across multiple cloud platforms and remote locations, many traditional perimeter-based security tools struggle to provide complete asset visibility, making detection and remediation challenging.

Zero-Trust architecture has emerged as a modern approach to cybersecurity, and access control is central to its implementation. It assumes that no user, device, or network should be inherently trusted. Instead, it requires continuous verification and authorization based on factors such as user identity, device health, and individual user behavior.

Zero Trust operates on the principle of “never trust, always verify,” meaning that every access request, whether it originates from inside or outside the network, must be authenticated and authorized.

Zero-Trust principles, such as the principle of least privilege, multi-factor authentication (MFA), micro-segmentation, and granular access policies, help secure resources regardless of location. They ensure that only verified user credentials have network access and that users are limited to data and resources based on their roles and attributes.

[Read also: What is Active Directory security? Risks and best practices]

Understanding the role of access control in a Zero-Trust framework sets the stage for a deeper dive into its key components. These elements form the backbone of access control models, ensuring that the right individuals have the appropriate access to the right resources at the right times and under the right conditions. Let’s explore these components in detail to grasp how they collectively fortify an organization’s security posture.

5 key components of access control models

All types of access control methods revolve around managing the following aspects:

  1. Authentication is the process of verifying a user’s identity through methods such as passwords, biometric data, or security tokens.
  2. Authorization is the mechanism for controlling who has access to what based on a user’s authenticated identity and predefined access policies.
  3. Access permissions or rights to use, open, or enter a resource are granted once user credentials have been authenticated and authorized.
  4. Management of user identities, roles, and permissions, as well as monitoring and reviewing access logs, is crucial to your organization’s ongoing security.
  5. Audit access control systems regularly to ensure compliance with security policies and detect anomalies or unauthorized access attempts.

Now that we understand the five key components of access control models, let’s transition to the various types of access control and how each offers unique approaches to managing and enforcing these components.

Types of access control

There are several types of access control models organizations can leverage, each with its own approach for contributing to a robust access control strategy:

  • Attribute-based access control (ABAC) takes a more granular approach, basing access decisions on attributes such as user (e.g., department, location), resource (e.g., sensitivity level), or environmental attributes (e.g., time of day, network location).
  • Discretionary access control (DAC) is commonly used in file-sharing systems. In this model, users control access to their own files and are authorized to grant or revoke access to others.
  • Mandatory access control (MAC) is a stricter model often used in high-security environments, such as military or government organizations. The system administrator provides access based on predefined security policies.
  • Role-based access control (RBAC) grants access based on user roles and responsibilities and the permissions associated with those roles.

Having examined common types of access control, we can pivot to crucial best practices for ensuring that access control systems are effective and aligned with overarching security policies and regulatory requirements.

Access control best practices

Access control is an ongoing, top-down strategy that must occur every day of the week and every minute of the day. This is why best practices for optimizing access control measures and enhancing security are closely tied to improving an organization’s overall cyber hygiene best practices, which include:

  • Follow the Zero-Trust framework of never trusting, always verifying, assuming breach, and applying the principle of least privilege (i.e., users should only have access to data, resources, and apps needed for their role).
  • Implement robust access control policies that define who, what, when, why, and how. Also, review and update permissions regularly to ensure compliance and determine whether access control policies are still effective and aligned with evolving security needs.
  • Leverage multi-layered access mechanisms, such as MFA, to provide an additional layer of security beyond simple username and password authentication.
  • Perform frequent employee training that includes a C-level pep rally. Research has found that risky user behavior is curtailed when execs speak publicly about the importance of identity security.
  • Provide a seamless user experience. Employees expect exceptional digital experiences, and admins want streamlined tasks that save time managing user identities, permissions, and security policies. The mark of an exceptional digital employee experience (DEX) solution is that it can help organizations meet both user and access control needs without compromising data security measures.

Remember, access control is not a “one-and-done” fix but an ongoing strategy that requires regular reviews, updates, and management.

As organizations embrace these access control best practices, it’s essential to consider how a unified security solution that centralizes authentication and authorization can simplify access control management and ensure consistency across diverse IT environments by reinforcing critical cybersecurity measures.

In the following section, we’ll explore how Tanium enables organizations to bolster their access management, agility, and protection needed to maintain robust cybersecurity defenses to combat evolving cyber threats.

Fortify your access management cybersecurity with Tanium

Today’s IT environments typically include a combination of cloud-based services and on-premises systems, so effectively maintaining and updating privileges can be challenging. Tanium’s Converged Endpoint Management (XEM) platform redefines the traditional access management solution by offering a comprehensive suite of tools designed to streamline and strengthen access management, building on our industry-leading, real-time endpoint visibility and control capabilities.

By integrating Tanium with Microsoft Entra ID or other supported IAM solutions, our endpoint management technology offers invaluable feedback on the status of access control-related actions and enables you to implement Zero-Trust principles more effectively within your existing tools. With Tanium’s accurate, up-to-date information, your IT, security, and operations teams can confidently grant or deny access, configure user permissions, and enforce security requirements to strengthen your organization’s overall security posture and enhance its resilience against sophisticated cyber threats, including those targeting user credentials and access management systems.

Embrace the future of better endpoint control with Autonomous Endpoint Management (AEM). This innovative approach empowers organizations to proactively manage devices with unparalleled precision and automation. Join us in revolutionizing endpoint security and management by experiencing the power of autonomy with our vision for AEM. Request a free, personalized demo to take the first step towards a more secure and efficient IT environment today.

Tanium Staff

Tanium’s village of experts co-writes as Tanium Staff, sharing their lens on security, IT operations, and other relevant topics across the business and cybersphere.

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