What is Access Control?

Access control is often considered an essential component of information security, and for good reason. It’s one of the most basic steps that organisations can take to protect their sensitive data, and it’s also among the most versatile.

Restricting access to certain systems reduces the risk of several cyber security risks, and it also limits the possibility of malicious insiders wreaking havoc.

It’s why every organisation that stores sensitive information online must have access controls. But what exactly are they and how do they work? We explain everything you need to know in this blog.

How do access controls work?

In their most basic form, access controls determine who has approval to view data, and it restricts anyone else from accessing it.

It does this in a two-step process. First, there is an authentication mechanism that verifies the identity of a user making an access request. In most cases, this occurs when someone attempts to access information via their work computer, and so they will identify themselves using their account credentials.

The second part of the process is authorisation, which determines whether a user should be given access to data. Authorisation is pre-determined, with the organisation establishing who in the organisation is permitted to view various sensitive parts of the company.

For example, systems containing employees’ financial records should only be accessible by the organisation’s HR team, while access to highly confidential company information should be limited to the board of directors.

Other types of information will be more broadly accessible, with anyone in the organisation that provides correct authentication being authorised to view the information.

But to be effective, access controls require organisations to enforce robust policies. The system only works if the right level of clearance is given and if access to information is fully restricted.

Why are access controls important?

Access controls help mitigate the risk of two major security vulnerabilities. First, it prevents employees from accessing information that isn’t relevant to their job. This reduces the amount of information that any single employee can access, which in turn minimises the overall threat landscape.

It ensures that, should an account be compromised – such as a cyber attacker stealing login credentials – there is a limit on how much information the crook can access.

This it means that, for the majority of accounts, a compromise won’t expose highly sensitive information, such as corporate data or employees’ financial records.

Another benefit of access control is that it prevents employees from compromising information directly – whether maliciously or unintentionally. If a member of staff has free reign to look at any information they like, this could easily result in a privacy breach, whether the employee intended to use the information maliciously or not.

Types of access control

There is no single way to implement access control. Depending on the organisation’s set up and its requirements, there are several methods that can be used:

  • Role-based access control

This is the most widely used form of access control, with individuals being given authorisation to view information based on their job role.

Users’ ability to view information is regulated by a central authority based on an information classification system.

  • Discretionary access control

This method enables administrators to set the policies that define who is authorised to access certain types of information.

  • Rule-based access control

In this system, the administrator defines the rules that govern access. These are usually based on conditions such as the location of the person making the access request and the time of day.

This version of access control is often implemented alongside a role-based system.

  • Attribute-based access control

Privilege is determined by evaluating a set of rules, policies and relationships using the attributes of users, systems and environmental conditions.

How to implement access control

You can find out how to implement access controls with the support of the Cyber Essentials scheme. It’s a UK government-backed programme that sets out five steps that organisations can take to achieve a baseline of cyber security. When implemented correctly, the steps can prevent 80% of common cyber attacks.

Among the five steps is access control, and to meet the scheme’s requirements you need a combination of policies and technical measures. As such, you must also ensure that you have a mechanism to authenticate users and assess their level of clearance before granting them access to applications or devices.

For more tips on access controls and the Cyber Essentials scheme, take a look at our free guide – Cyber Essentials: A guide to the scheme.

IT Governance is a CREST-accredited certification body for the Cyber Essentials scheme.

This means that organisations will receive an added level of independent assurance in the form of an external vulnerability scan.

Our fixed-price packages can help your organisation achieve certification quickly and easy, whatever your budget or level of technical expertise.