Access Control Models

Access Control Models

Access control includes control over access to the network resources, information system resources, and information. It is crucial for an organization to implement the proper access controls to protect the organization’s resources and information. A security analyst should understand the different basic models for implementing access controls in order to better understand how attackers can break the access controls.

Mandatory Access Control

Secures information by assigning sensitivity (security level) labels on information and comparing it to the level of sensitivity a user is operating at. Usually appropriate for extremely secure systems including military applications or mission critical applications.

Discretionary Access Control

Uses an ACL to decide which users or group of users have access to the information. The owner of information is able to change the ACL permissions at his or her discretion.

Non-Discretionary Access Control

Access decisions are based on an individual’s roles and responsibilities within the organization, also known as RBAC.

Mandatory access control: MAC is the strictest control. The design of MAC was defined, and is primarily used by the government and military. MAC enforces system administrator-defined access controls to all controlled resources. MAC assigns a security label to each of the resources containing a classification (such as top secret, secret, and confidential) and a category (such as the department number and project name). Similarly, each user account on the system also includes the same classification and category properties. When a user attempts to access a resource, the system checks the user’s classification and categories and compares them to the properties of the requested resource’s security label. Access is only allowed if the user’s two credentials match. For example, a user with a secret classification cannot access a resource with the top secret label. MAC requires high system management overhead due to the need to update the labels to accommodate new data, new users, and changes in the categorization and classification.

Discretionary access control: DAC allows each user to control access to their own data. Instead of a security label as in the case of MAC, each resource in a DAC-based system has an ACL associated with it. An ACL contains a list of users and groups to which the user has permitted access together with the level of access for each user or group. DAC provides a much more flexible environment than MAC but also increases the risk that data will be made accessible to unauthorized users. An example of DAC method is file system permissions. On the file system, each file and folder has an owner. The owner can use ACL and decide which users or group of users have access to the file or folder.

Non-discretionary access control: Also known as RBAC, access controls using RBAC are based on a user’s job function within the organization, and access is allowed or denied based on a set of rules that are defined by a system administrator. In many organizations in industry and civilian government, the end users do not “own” the information for which they are allowed access. For these organizations, the corporation or agency is the actual owner of system objects, and discretionary access control may not be appropriate. RBAC allows and promotes the central administration of an organizational specific security policy. An example of using RBAC is allowing an analyst to be able to only read the firewall logs, but not be able to change any of the firewall configurations.

In addition to the access models above, other basic access control principles include the following:

The principle of least privilege specifies a limited, as-needed approach to granting user and process access rights to specific information and tools. Access rights should be time-based in order to limit the resource’s access to only the time that is needed to complete necessary tasks. Granting access beyond this scope increases the potential for malicious manipulation of sensitive data or processes by unauthorized actors. The assigning of access rights limits system-damaging attacks from users, regardless of whether they are intentional. All users must be authenticated and authorized, and should only be authorized at the lowest privilege level required to perform their functions.

Separation of duties is the concept of having more than one person who is required to complete a task. Separation of duties is an internal control to prevent fraud and error.

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