Which type of access control system is best for your business?

access control

Every business has unique access control needs, but finding the perfect fit with the right information is possible. There are several types of access control, each with its advantages and disadvantages. Some are better suited for particular business sizes or work environments. What are the main approaches to access control and their use cases?

1. Mandatory Access Control (MAC)

Mandatory access control is highly secure but rigid and complex. Military organizations and government agencies commonly use this approach since data security is a mission-critical priority. MAC is usually top-down and based on levels of security clearance.

A network administrator has complete control over granting and denying access. They assign different security clearance levels to each user. Clearance levels can tie to a user’s job title or identity but aren’t necessarily connected.

Users can’t independently change their privileges or permissions. They must submit a request directly to the administrator if they need access to something outside their clearance.

Most companies don’t need this level of security. Strict access control is limiting in a typical environment and may impede productivity. Executing the MAC approach is also complex, so small and medium-sized enterprises may not have adequate IT expertise.

However, there are situations where the MAC approach is appropriate. For example, a business specializing in security services should have highly secure access control. Any organization that handles large amounts of sensitive personal information may also want to consider MAC.

Additionally, the MAC approach suits environments where security levels make more sense than role-based permissions. Grouping access control permissions in a level system may be rigid, but it does create simplicity and clarity. It also allows employees to collaborate across departments at the same access control level.

2. Discretionary Access Control (DAC)

Discretionary access control is at the opposite end of the security spectrum from mandatory access control. It minimizes restrictions and allows leadership to control access rather than IT administrators. For example, a manager could allow employees to access certain files using their standard login credentials.

DAC is significantly more flexible than MAC but may be harder to manage. Unlike MAC, there is no centralized network control. Access is left up to business leaders. Every department can grant and deny access freely, but there is a higher risk of oversights, vulnerabilities, and inconsistencies.

As a result, DAC is not ideal for enterprises that need high-level data protection. It is best suited for companies that require minimal protection and maximum flexibility. However, DAC can still be highly secure in the right conditions.

For instance, DAC is one of a few access control strategies that often utilize the rule of least privilege to determine security clearance. Least privilege is a fantastic way to manage data access and minimize risk when properly executed. Role-based access control also utilizes it.

DAC also performs well in small business environments where one or two supervisors act as network administrators. In this work environment, allowing owners or managers to determine access control privileges is efficient. Keeping track of those privileges is also easier since fewer employees and departments are involved than a large organization.

3. Identity-Based Access Control

Identity-based access control is customized for each employee, regardless of job title. It’s more challenging to scale than role-based access control but offers more flexibility.

The identity-based approach can work for any size business, but it’s easier to implement on a smaller scale. It’s ideally suited for collaborative or flexible organizations where tasks might mix or overlap across job titles.

Additionally, identity-based access control can fit a hybrid work environment well. Employees need different levels of security when they’re working remotely. With identity-based access control, IT personnel can customize access protocols for remote employees without creating unnecessary difficulties in the office.

The identity-based approach is also suitable for any company with many contractors or temporary employees. Expectations and needs for temporary roles change too frequently for role-based access control to be effective. Identity-based access protocols give businesses a case-by-case flexibility that simplifies security for temporary employees and contractors.

One important downside of identity-based access control is the risk of targeting phishing attacks. Hackers often target certain employees, hoping they will have high-level security clearance. Identity-based access control makes it obvious that higher-level employees tend to have more access. Enterprises that use this access control strategy may want to implement a strong phishing awareness program to minimize the risk of credential theft and hacking.

4. Role-Based Access Control

Role-based and identity-based access control might sound similar, but they’re two distinct strategies. The role-based access control system grants and denies access to data based on a user’s title or position. For example, a staff engineer has different access than an accountant, regardless of each person’s identity.

The idea is users only need certain types of data to complete their jobs. So, their role should define what they have access to. This is a good access control strategy for many medium and large businesses. IT personnel can set up default access profiles for each role rather than building custom profiles for every employee. As a result, role-based access control is easy to implement, scale, and monitor.

Role-based access control is also good for organizations that want to monitor physical and cybersecurity side-by-side. An access control and monitoring system improves accountability, which can help discourage theft or any other unauthorized access in the workplace.

This method is highly effective for physical access control applications. Different departments may need access to varying parts of an office or facility and come and go at staggered times. Role-based access control makes providing a secure working environment for every department easy.

However, businesses prioritizing interdepartmental collaboration will likely be better off with something else. Role-based access control is too rigid in a highly collaborative environment to allow efficient workflows across teams and departments.

5. Rule-Based Access Control

The rule-based access control strategy uses a set of standards to regulate what data users can access and when and how they can access it. For example, the network might have a rule requiring employees to log in from a workstation in the office to access work-related data.

This approach works for physical access control, too. Managers can set a rule that blocks new physical entry attempts after the office closes at the end of the day. They can also set employee status requirements for different doors. For instance, a manager-level role might be required to enter a server room.

A good way to think of rule-based access control is as a hallway of locked doors. If a user has the correct key or password, a door will open for them. However, one key won’t work for other hallway doors.

The rule-based approach to access control shifts the focus away from users and prioritizes specific files’ and apps’ sensitivity. It’s ideal for enterprises that handle a mix of low-risk and high-risk data and ones with many shared security protocols. Easy standardization is one of the main benefits of using a rule-based access control strategy, so it’s best for companies that don’t require many specific, customized security profiles.

6. Attribute-Based Access Control

Attribute-based access control is similar to rule-based but has a few important differences. It compares a user’s security status and traits with rulesets for different data types.

This system grants or denies access depending on whether a user has specific attributes, such as IP address, login device, or job title. It shares some similarities with the role-based and rule-based strategies. An employee’s role in the organization can be a factor in the security rulesets, but it isn’t the only one.

Attribute-based access control is the best option for many hybrid work environments. It is highly adaptable due to the condition-based rulesets.

For example, a user might be working remotely from a coffee shop. If they are using poorly secured public Wi-Fi, the network can deny access to high-risk data. Public Wi-Fi can expose employees to several serious cybersecurity risks, which is critical to consider in an access control strategy. Attribute-based access control can respond to specific conditions like this to prevent the unique risks remote workers face.

So, if the employee relocates to the office or a secure home network, they can pass the network’s connection security criteria. This is a great example of attribute-based access control acting as a failsafe for specific, known risk factors.

How to Choose the Right Access Control Strategy

The different types of access control aren’t always one-size-fits-all solutions. Some companies use a mix of strategies to suit the needs of various departments or shifting work environments. Businesses should consider their highest and lowest risk data, their team size, physical security needs, and the amount of collaboration in their workplace. These traits have the most influence on access control needs.