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9 Access Control Best Practices

Access control is the first defense in cybersecurity, playing a critical role in protecting an organization's resources - tools, data, or files. Managing who or what can access these resources effectively is crucial as the initial point of contact in a network. Operating under the three pillars - identification, authentication, and authorization, it dictates the level of access based on proven identities.

With unauthorized access often being the starting point of security breaches, effective access control strategies form the bedrock of a secure system. This blog post delves into the best access control practices and how its thoughtful implementation can significantly enhance an organization's cybersecurity posture.

Why is Access Control Crucial?

Access control significantly contributes to the overarching objective of safeguarding data confidentiality and integrity. By defining and controlling who can access and modify data, access control fortifies security measures to prevent unauthorized exposure or alterations to sensitive information.

Equally important is the access control in ensuring adherence to many regulatory requirements. Across the globe, numerous laws mandate stringent data protection protocols. Implementing robust access control systems is essential for an organization to comply with these regulatory demands.

Access control extends beyond prevention and into post-incident responses. Detailed access logs can serve as crucial evidence during forensic investigations. They can unravel an attacker's path during a breach, providing invaluable insights that can help fortify the security infrastructure. Access control is crucial to preventive security measures and aiding forensic investigations.

Access Control Best Practices

1. Implement Access Control Policy 

Access Control Policy (ACP) is an organization's comprehensive set of regulations to regulate and dictate how and when access to specific data and systems can be granted or denied. It's a critical component of a company's security strategy, defining how users can access the organization's data and systems and under which conditions this access is permitted.

An ACP is typically drafted by an organization's security and management teams, often with input from legal and compliance teams. It should reflect the company's mission, strategies, and compliance needs, supporting business goals while maintaining stringent security measures.

access control policy

In creating an Access Control Policy, several key factors are considered:

User Identification

One of the fundamental aspects of an ACP is user identification. This provision designates how users will be recognized within the system. The identification mode could range from unique usernames or employee IDs to more advanced techniques such as biometric identifiers. For instance, a user could be identified by their unique employee ID and department code.


After users have been identified, the ACP must outline how their identities will be authenticated. This process validates a user's claimed identity, ensuring that they are who they claim to be. It could involve passwords, security tokens, or biometric verification. In a financial institution, for example, users may need to provide a password and a one-time pin (OTP) sent to their mobile device, thus implementing multi-factor authentication.


Once a user is authenticated, the ACP details the level of access that the user is granted. This process is called authorization. Typically, the ACP bases the authorization on the principle of least privilege, which dictates that a user should have only the minimum levels of access necessary to complete their tasks. For instance, a junior accountant in a firm might be authorized to view transaction records but not make changes to them.

Access Control Methods

The policy must explicitly outline how access control will be enforced. These could be Discretionary Access Control (DAC), where the data owner determines who has access; Mandatory Access Control (MAC), where access is determined by comparing user clearances with data classifications; or Role-Based (RBAC), where access is based on the role of the user in the organization. In a university, for example, the ACP could follow RBAC, where a professor's role allows access to student academic records, while the janitorial staff does not have this access.

Auditing and Monitoring

Finally, the ACP must provide regular auditing, monitoring, and update mechanisms. These are vital to ensure that the access control measures are working effectively and to adapt the policy to changing needs and threats. For example, a tech company might have the policy to review access logs weekly and conduct a thorough audit of access privileges every six months, updating the policy as required.

Every component of the ACP, from user identification to audit measures, works in tandem to create a well-rounded, efficient, and effective access control strategy. These comprehensive policies help protect the organization from potential breaches, ensuring data confidentiality, integrity, and availability.

2. Apply The Principle of Least Privilege (PoLP) 

The Principle of Least Privilege (PoLP) is a foundational concept in computer security and access control, advocating for minimal user profile privileges on systems based on users' job necessities. In essence, under PoLP, users are given the minimum access levels – or permissions – they need to perform their job functions.

The principle is implemented in different contexts, from setting up employee profiles within an internal database to programming where a process is given only the resources it needs to perform its specific function. In all cases, the goal is to reduce the potential for damage if a system is compromised.

principle of least privilege as access control best practice

To fully comprehend PoLP, it's essential to understand its key aspects:

Access Control

At its core, PoLP is an access control measure. Each user is given specific privileges required for their role and no more. These privileges may include access to specific software, hardware, or data.

User Roles and Privileges

PoLP requires a clear understanding of user roles and their responsibilities. The privileges for each user are determined based on these roles. For instance, a customer service representative will need access to customer records but not financial data.

Regular Review and Revoking of Privileges

PoLP involves regular audits to ensure that users have the correct privileges. As roles change, privileges must be updated, and when users no longer need specific access, these privileges should be revoked.

Importance of PoLP

The enhancement of security is a crucial advantage of implementing PoLP. By restricting access, organizations minimize the risk of data misuse, whether intentional or accidental. Centrify's recent survey, Privileged Access Management in the Modern Threatscape, found 74% of data breaches begin with privileged credential abuse.

Furthermore, should a breach occur, the potential damage an intruder can cause is constrained to the permissions of the compromised account. PoLP plays a significant role in ensuring regulatory compliance. Many regulatory frameworks, from HIPAA to GDPR and PCI DSS, mandate the implementation of PoLP. Thus, adherence to this principle fortifies cybersecurity measures and helps organizations sidestep potential non-compliance penalties.

Finally, PoLP contributes to streamlined management operations. System administrators can more effectively track and manage privileges by equipping users with only the access they require. This simplification of administrative tasks facilitates the prompt identification of anomalies or attempts at unauthorized access.

3. ​​Enable Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) 

​​Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) is a security enhancement that requires users to present two or more separate forms of identification before access is granted. As a method of access control, MFA dramatically enhances an organization's security posture by adding multiple layers of defense, significantly reducing the likelihood of unauthorized access.

The factors of authentication in an MFA setup are generally categorized into three types:

a. Something You Know: This refers to knowledge factors such as passwords, PINs, or answers to security questions. This form of authentication is the most common and has been used for decades as primary access control.

b. Something You Have: This involves possession factors like a physical card, a smartphone, or a hardware token. A good example is a banking system that requires a user to have a specific device that generates a one-time password.

c. Something You Are: This represents inherence factors and includes biometrics such as fingerprints, facial recognition, or iris scans. These factors are becoming more common, especially in sensitive systems, due to their uniqueness to each individual.

By requiring users to authenticate through multiple independent factors, MFA ensures that even if one factor is compromised, unauthorized access is still unlikely. For example, an attacker might guess or steal a user's password, but without the user's fingerprint or access to their hardware token, they can't gain access to the system.

MFA can be implemented in various ways and can be used for different types of access control, such as system login, application access, or network access. The specific implementation of MFA will depend on the sensitivity of the data or system being protected and the potential risks identified by the organization.

To summarize, fortifying defenses with MFA is a crucial best practice in access control. It adds a substantial layer of security that makes unauthorized access significantly more complex, thereby helping to protect sensitive data and systems from potential breaches.

4. Perform Regular Audits and Reporting

Performing regular audits and reporting is an essential practice in access control. This involves a systematic and documented evaluation of how well the organization's access controls align with established security policies and standards.

Defining the Audit Scope: The first step in conducting an audit is to define its scope. This determines which systems, locations, and procedures will be evaluated. It could include specific departments, physical locations, or certain information systems.

Data Collection: Once the scope has been defined, data collection begins. This involves examining access logs, interviewing system users, and reviewing system configurations and access control lists. The goal is to gather accurate information about who has been granted access to resources, how their access is managed, and whether any unauthorized access has occurred.

Evaluating the Findings: The data collected is then analyzed to assess the effectiveness of the access controls. This includes checking whether access rights align with job roles, verifying that unnecessary access rights have been revoked, and identifying any instances of unauthorized access or other security events.‍

Reporting: The audit results are compiled into a report, which outlines the effectiveness of the access controls, highlights any non-compliance with the access control policy, and identifies potential areas of improvement. The report should provide a clear and concise overview of the audit findings, including recommendations for addressing any identified issues.

Performing regular audits and reporting provides several key benefits

Anomaly Detection: Audits help identify any irregularities or anomalies in access patterns. This could include unauthorized access attempts, deviations from standard access patterns, or changes in user access rights.‍

Compliance Assurance: Audits ensure that the organization is in compliance with its access control policies and procedures. This is important not only for maintaining security but also for demonstrating compliance with regulatory requirements.‍

Security Enhancement: By identifying and addressing gaps in access control, audits help improve the overall security posture of the organization.‍

Building Trust: Regular audits and transparent reporting demonstrate to stakeholders that the organization is committed to maintaining robust access control and data security.

Therefore, performing regular audits and reporting is a fundamental part of access control, providing the necessary oversight and facilitating continuous improvement in access management

5. Use Role-Based Access Control (RBAC)

Role-Based Access Control (RBAC) is a method of regulating access to computer or network resources based on the roles of individual users within an enterprise. In this context, access is the ability of an individual user to perform a specific task, such as viewing, creating, or modifying files. Rather than assigning permissions to each user individually, RBAC assigns permissions to specific roles, and then users are assigned appropriate roles.

The RBAC method provides organizations with high granularity and flexibility in their access control model, allowing them to align the model to the specific requirements of their business processes.

Critical aspects of RBAC include

1. Roles: In RBAC, a role represents a set of access permissions. Rather than assigning access rights directly to each user, the system assigns rights to roles. A role could represent a job function, a responsibility level, or a job title. For example, a 'Project Manager' role might have permission to view and edit all files related to a specific project.

2. Role Assignment: Users are then assigned to different roles based on their job function or responsibility level. For example, an individual hired as a project manager would be assigned the 'Project Manager' role in the system. This would automatically grant them all the permissions associated with that role.

3. Role Hierarchies: Often, roles are arranged in a hierarchy, allowing roles to inherit permissions from other roles. For example, a 'Department Head' role might automatically include all the permissions of the 'Project Manager' role, plus additional permissions.

4. Separation of Duties: In more advanced RBAC systems, rules can ensure the separation of duties so that no single role is granted too much power or access. For example, the person who requests a financial transaction might differ from the person who approves it.

Implementing RBAC has several benefits. It simplifies access management, especially in large organizations where the number of permissions can be vast. RBAC can make the process of onboarding, transferring, and offboarding employees more efficient, as it allows quick updates to user privileges through changes to role assignments.

6. Invest in Identity and Access Management (IAM)

Identity and Access Management (IAM) is a crucial part of an organization's cybersecurity strategy, and investing in an effective IAM solution can offer multiple benefits. Let's simplify it further and understand what it involves.

Picture an IAM solution as the trusted gatekeeper of a company's digital kingdom. It knows every user—the king, the knights, the guests- and ensures everyone has the right keys to the right doors. So, the knight who needs access to the armory won't be able to enter the royal treasury—unless his role demands it.

Now let's translate that to a business scenario.

‍Understanding Identities: In a company, each person (an employee, vendor, customer) has a unique identity. The first role of an IAM system is like a trustworthy scribe, maintaining a record of each identity and its associated attributes—what roles they have and what access they need.

Managing Access: The IAM solution provides the right access based on these identities and roles. It's like the watchful castle guard who opens the gate for the knight to enter the armory but doesn't let him into the treasury because his role doesn't require that.

One Key, Many Doors - Single Sign-On (SSO): IAM solutions provide a Single Sign-On feature. Just like a master key that opens many doors, with SSO, a user logs in once and can access many different systems and applications without remembering different passwords or logging in again.

Watching Over the Crown Jewels - Privileged Access Management (PAM): Some users in a company have more access—like a royal advisor who can enter the king's chamber. These privileged users, and IAM solutions closely monitor and monitor their activities.

Why should a company invest in IAM solutions?

Better Security: With an IAM solution, a company has better control over who can access what, reducing the chances of unauthorized access.

Saving Time and Effort: IAM solutions make managing users and their access rights easier and more efficient, saving IT teams a lot of time and effort.

Staying on the Right Side of Law: Laws today require businesses to control who can access specific data. IAM solutions help companies comply with these laws and avoid potential penalties.

Making Life Easier for Users: Features like Single Sign-On make using systems and applications more straightforward and seamless for users, improving their experience.

In short, investing in an IAM solution can significantly improve a company's access control, making it more secure, efficient, and user-friendly.

7. Grant Temporary Privileges When Necessary

Granting temporary privileges is an access control practice that allows organizations to provide users with higher access rights for a limited time when necessary. This practice is particularly useful when a user needs to perform tasks that fall outside their typical role requirements but are essential at that moment.

Temporary privileges could be required in a range of situations. For example, a system administrator might need extra permissions to troubleshoot a problem, or a developer may need access to a production database for a short time to perform a specific task.

This practice aligns with the Principle of Least Privilege (PoLP), as it provides users with only the access necessary to perform their tasks and only for the duration that the access is needed.

Here's why granting temporary privileges when necessary is important

1. Enhanced Security: Temporary privileges ensure that users do not retain high-level access rights indefinitely after they've completed tasks that require them. This limits potential opportunities for unintentional misuse or exploitation by malicious actors.

2. Flexibility: Temporary privileges allow organizations to adapt to changing needs. For instance, in the case of an emergency or unexpected event, an organization can quickly grant necessary access rights to deal with the situation effectively.

3. Auditability: When temporary privileges are granted, they are typically logged and tracked, creating a record of who was granted the access, when they received it, and why. This increases accountability and allows for better auditing of access controls.

4. Efficiency: Granting temporary privileges can increase efficiency by ensuring that work is not delayed because of inadequate access rights. As soon as a need is identified, access can be granted quickly and then revoked as soon as it is no longer needed.

Implementing a system for granting temporary privileges requires clear procedures and controls, such as approval processes, time limits, and automatic revocation of privileges. It also involves regular audits to ensure the system works as intended. This practice forms an important part of a comprehensive and effective access control strategy.

8. Secure Administrative Access

Securing administrative access in an organization's access control strategy is a high priority due to the elevated privileges associated with administrative roles. Administrators typically have unrestricted access to systems or data, enabling them to perform tasks like system configurations, user account management, and privileged operations. Such extensive access makes administrative accounts prime targets for cyber attackers.

secure admin access control best practices


Detailed measures for securing administrative access include:

Strong Authentication Measures

Due to the elevated access of administrative accounts, they require stronger authentication protocols than regular user accounts. Multi-factor authentication (MFA) is commonly implemented. This layered defense significantly reduces the likelihood of unauthorized access to administrative accounts

Least Privilege Principle

Even within administrative roles, the principle of least privilege (PoLP) should be followed. Administrators should be given minimum necessary privileges to perform their job functions. Furthermore, administrators should use a non-privileged account for routine activities, switching to their administrative account only when necessary.

Credential Management

Regular updating and rotation of administrative credentials is a vital practice. Automated systems can help enforce password complexity requirements and routine changes. This ensures that even if credentials are somehow compromised, they're valid only for a limited period, minimizing potential damage.

Activity Logging and Monitoring

All activities carried out using administrative accounts should be logged meticulously and monitored in real-time. This includes login times, performed operations, and accessed files. These logs provide an audit trail, which can be crucial for detecting potential misuse and assisting in forensic analysis after a security incident.

Privileged Access Management (PAM) Tools

These solutions help organizations manage, control, and monitor privileged access in their IT environment. PAM solutions can automate many best practices for securing administrative access, including credential management, activity logging, and enforcing the least privilege.

Security Awareness and Training

Administrators must be aware of the risks associated with their privileged access and be trained in secure behaviors. Regular training and phishing simulations can make administrators more vigilant about potential threats and more cautious about their actions.

In essence, given the significant risk associated with compromised administrative accounts, securing administrative access is a cornerstone of an organization's access control and overall cybersecurity strategy. Implementing stringent security measures for these accounts can dramatically reduce an organization's vulnerability to serious security incidents.

9. Implement Multi-Layered Access Control

Implementing multi-layered access control is a crucial practice in the realm of cybersecurity. It involves creating multiple levels or 'layers' of defense to protect sensitive data and resources against unauthorized access.

In a multi-layered access control system, each layer provides a different type of control or protection. If an attacker manages to bypass one layer, they would still need to overcome the next layer before they can gain access to the system. This concept is often referred to as "defense in depth."

Critical aspects of implementing a multi-layered access control system include:

1. Physical Layer: This is the first layer of defense and involves securing the physical infrastructure that houses the organization's systems and data. This can include security measures such as locks, surveillance cameras, and biometric scanners.

2. Network Layer: This layer involves protecting the organization's networks from unauthorized access. This can include the use of firewalls, Intrusion Detection Systems (IDS), and network segmentation.‍

3. Application Layer: This layer involves securing individual applications by controlling who can access them and what they can do. This can include the use of role-based access control (RBAC), two-factor authentication (2FA), and session management.‍

4. Data Layer: This layer focuses on securing the data itself. This can include measures such as encryption, anonymization, and data classification.

The main advantages of a multi-layered access control system include:

Improved Security: By adding multiple layers of defense, organizations can improve their overall security posture. Even if an attacker manages to bypass one layer, they would still need to overcome the remaining layers to gain access.

Resilience: A multi-layered system can provide better resilience against different types of attacks. If one layer is compromised, the other layers can still provide protection.

Flexibility: A multi-layered approach can provide flexibility to adapt to changing security needs and threats. Organizations can add, remove, or modify layers as needed.

Implementing a multi-layered access control system can greatly enhance an organization's ability to protect its systems and data. It is a key component of a robust and flexible security strategy.

In summary, access control is essential for protecting an organization's digital resources. Key steps include clear policies that detail who can access what and when limiting users to only the access they need for their roles (Principle of Least Privilege) and assigning permissions based on roles (Role-Based Access Control).

Special care should be taken with administrative roles due to their high-level access. Sometimes, temporary privileges may be necessary, but these should be closely managed. Tools like Identity and Access Management (IAM) solutions can streamline these processes, and multi-layered access control can provide an extra level of security. Regular reviews ensure that these practices remain effective in maintaining a secure environment.


What are the access control types?

The primary types of access control include:

  • Discretionary Access Control (DAC)
  • Mandatory Access Control (MAC)
  • Role-Based Access Control (RBAC)
  • Attribute-Based Access Control (ABAC)
  • Rule-Based Access Control
  • Time-Based Access Control (TBAC)

Which access control model is considered the most secure?

The Mandatory Access Control (MAC) model is typically viewed as the most secure access control model. This perception is due to its strict enforcement of access policies, which are centrally administered. MAC's rigorous approach restricts users from altering access permissions, making it particularly robust in high-security environments.

What is the most widely used access control method?

The Role-Based Access Control (RBAC) method is commonly used across many organizations. Its popularity stems from its flexibility and scalability, allowing for easy management of permissions. This approach simplifies access control based on roles and responsibilities within the organization.

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