Access control is a critical consideration both for managing security and supporting productivity across an organization. Implementing an access control security policy requires an in-depth analysis of your environment and users to ensure all requirements are addressed. This guide will cover the top policy based access control considerations for keeping systems secure.
Access Control Security Policy: Top Considerations
Preventing unauthorized access is a primary goal of access control. This guide will detail key considerations for planning, implementing, and maintaining an access control security policy:
- An overview of access controls, policies, and why they’re essential
- Examples of types of access control policies
- Industry-standard principles and best practices to consider
- Common pitfalls to be aware of and avoid
Note that, while restricting access is the primary focus, the best access control procedures will also ensure that necessary, authorized access to information and resources is readily available.
An Overview of Access Control
The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) defines access control as the granting or denying of requests to access and use information, services, and facilities.
An access control policy refers to the documented requirements that dictate the management of this access and these requests. When looking at access control in the context of productivity, it can be seen as optimizing access to the information, services, and resources required for daily activities and tasks. But being excessively liberal with access can create security risks.
A well-planned, well-implemented policy will enforce processes and procedures to prevent any conflicting, insufficient, or excessive measures that may create vulnerabilities or block access to necessary resources. Common elements of an access management plan include policy management, authentication, and authorization.
What an Access Control Security Policy Can Do for an Organization
Access control is crucial to maintaining security and supporting operations, and the access control security policy is likely to affect everyone within the organization. Developing and enforcing an effective policy takes work, but the benefits of implementation include the following:
- Mitigation of internal threats – Preventing internal users from accessing resources and information they don’t need and aren’t authorized for reduces the risk of inappropriate access or use.
- Better security against external threats – Effective access control will help prevent unauthorized access or breaches from outside threats.
- More efficient identity management – Access control is one facet of identity and access management (IAM), and a well-developed policy will help facilitate a smooth identity management process.
- Better productivity – Since access control is also about making sure appropriate, necessary requests aren’t blocked, an effective policy will ensure essential resources are available, helping personnel stay productive.
- Sustainable system administration – A thorough policy will make system administration easier to manage overall by clearly defining processes and procedures and reducing the burden of decision-making.
- Compliance with security standards – Since access controls play a significant role in digital security, implementing them is required to comply with common cybersecurity standards.
Access control is a digital security necessity, and is often formally required by regulatory bodies, but its many benefits make it valuable even if that were not the case.
Types of Access Control Policies
NIST access control policy guidelines recommend considering three points when designing an access control program: policy, models, and mechanisms. Your organization’s access control policy is what will define the models and mechanisms used to execute the policy.
There are several approaches to developing access control policies, and the best approach will differ from one organization to the next. Further, there are two primary groups that different types of access control policies are divided into: discretionary and non-discretionary.
Discretionary Access Control
Discretionary access control tends to be identity-based and is a fairly liberal approach to policy that allows the object owner to manage how much access others have to it. Examples of control mechanisms used in this type of policy include access control lists and user- and group-based permissions. This type of policy provides a lot of flexibility, but has significant downsides:
- Even if someone only has read access to an object, they can copy its contents to another object they own, essentially erasing any limitations.
- Permissions are enforced by individuals rather than policy, making it more difficult to ensure that internal security policies are being followed.
- Allowing individuals to manage permissions increases the risk of permission creep and poor data integrity.
- There is dramatically increased vulnerability to Trojan horse attacks.
Though the flexibility and ease of implementation may make discretionary access control policies seem appealing, they’re not the best option for maximizing security and consistency.
Non-Discretionary Access Control
Any policy that isn’t discretionary is categorized as non-discretionary access control. These policies tend to rely on rule-based controls, and the mechanisms used to enforce access control cannot be changed by users. Both static and dynamic non-discretionary policies can be used to define rules for access control. Choosing the right type takes a lot of consideration.
RSI Security will advise on how to determine the right policy for your organization.
Access Control Policies to Consider
When designing an access control policy, it may seem easier to identify a single, best option and plan to stick with it. But since access control policies are subject to change in response to the needs and environment of the organization, becoming familiar with common options will enable you to update policy as needed.
Mandatory Access Control
Mandatory access control is one of the most common policies. A single authority makes access control decisions, and users cannot make changes to access rights, even if they own an asset.
This type of policy may be appropriate when it’s necessary to ensure that the system enforces policy and that it cannot be overruled by users.
One potential mechanism for enforcing this type of policy is the simple security rule. This mechanism utilizes labeling to define clearance levels and control access to objects, limiting users based on their clearance level.
Role-based Access Control
Role-based access control, which is a form of non-discretionary access control, is another common policy. Each role has certain access rights associated with it. Users are then assigned a role, and that dictates the scope of their access.
Role-based access control is an efficient way to manage and enforce security policies and makes it easier to adjust a user’s access when their responsibilities change by assigning them a new role. When there are changes within the organization, roles can be modified, added, or removed, which is much more sustainable than manually adjusting permissions for individuals.
Principles and Best Practices to Consider
The policy you design and implement for your organization will serve as the framework for defining access control security standards across your organization.
But enforcing that policy comes down to the finer details.
Consider the following principles when selecting and designing control mechanisms to ensure that each access control procedure defined in your policy is effective:
- Consider the identity management life cycle – Identity management and access control are directly connected and should be treated as such. Your access control security policy should serve as a cornerstone of the organization’s overall identity and access management program.
- Follow the least privilege principle – Granting the minimum amount of access necessary for a user to complete their tasks is considered best practice, so this is a crucial principle to keep in mind when designing your policy.
- Use multi-factor authentication – Multi-factor authentication can help mitigate the risk of unauthorized access by increasing the requirements needed to authenticate a request, making it another best practice to follow.
- Consider the separation of duty principle – This is a principle in which some roles are mutually exclusive, meaning that being assigned one prevents being assigned the other. This is a good way to prevent conflicting or unintentional granting of permissions.
- Consider temporal constraints – These are time-based restrictions that control access. This could include limiting access to certain windows or time so that, for example, a user would be unable to access resources outside of working hours.
- Adopt a zero-trust approach – Zero trust revolves around the concept that both internal and external threats are always assumed to exist and no entity is trustworthy by default. As IT environments become more complex, distributed, and dynamic, zero trust policies are becoming increasingly essential.
- Monitor and document – Monitoring network and system activity will both provide insight into the efficacy of the existing policy and controls and ensure any unauthorized activity is detected. Log and preserve this data so that it can be referred to when tracking down issues or going through audits.
- Re-evaluate regularly – As with all security programs, it’s critical to regularly evaluate your organization’s access control security policy for efficacy. Define a regular assessment schedule, document the results of each assessment, and develop a plan to address areas of improvement and implement changes.
Access Control Issues to Avoid
You should always perform thorough analysis to identify risks and needs in the early stages of designing a network access control policy. But issues can still be overlooked during the process or develop later on. Be mindful of the following potential issues when implementing and evaluating how well policy-based access control is working in your organization:
- Privilege creep – Also known as permission creep, this is when users gain access to data or resources that they should not be authorized to access. This can be the result of improperly assigned permissions, unintentional inheritance, or other mistakes. It’s much more likely to occur when managing access permissions manually or on an individual basis, emphasizing the importance of a more systematic way of managing permissions.
- Blocked privileges – Being the opposite of privilege creep, blocked privileges can be just as much of an issue. In this case, a user is unable to access data or resources that they need to perform tasks. One of the objectives of an effective access control security policy is ensuring that essential access is granted, and issues that lead to blocked privileges can hurt daily operations and the goals and mission of the organization.
- Cyclic inheritance – Cyclic inheritance happens when a privilege loop occurs. For example, if there are three users, user one inherits privileges from user two, user two inherits from user three, and user three inherits from user one. This can lead to an endless loop when privileges are being assessed.
- Conflicting privileges – Privilege conflicts can occur when a user is subject to conflicting access control rules. This can happen because the mechanisms used to manage rules usually do not overwrite values, meaning new rules won’t necessarily replace old ones.
Thorough planning can help mitigate issues, but it’s best to operate under the assumption that things will never be perfect and that new problems will emerge. Implementing a policy that expects and plans for issues will result in a more effective, resilient access control program.
Each Access Control Security Policy Is Unique
Between physical facilities, internal systems, and public-facing services, every organization has some level of need for access control. Designing and implementing the right policy for your organization starts with understanding the most effective types of policies, key principles, and best practices. But it also requires an in-depth analysis of both the security risks your organization faces and the demands presented by day-to-day operations.
Optimize Your Access Control Security Policy
An effective access control security policy is one of the crucial elements of any organization’s digital security initiative. As reviewed in this guide, there are multiple approaches to access control to choose from, several cybersecurity principles and best practices to consider, and still more issues and mistakes to be aware of, mitigate, and avoid.
And, just like managing any aspect of security, an access control security policy requires extensive planning and evaluation to develop, implement, and maintain.
But your organization doesn’t have to face this challenge alone.
RSI Security’s security program advisors are here to help implement and manage the optimal policy to manage permissions, prevent unauthorized access, and ensure authorized users have access to what they need to stay productive. Contact RSI Security today to assess your existing policy and start enhancing your organization’s access control measures.
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