Data Access Control

What is Data Access Control?

Data Access Control allows organizations to authorize users, employees, and third parties to access company data in a manner that meets security, privacy, and compliance requirements. These requirements are set by security best practices and official regulations, such as GDPR, HIPAA, and NIST. These regulations often require organizations to audit and place controls over the entities that can access sensitive information. The main purpose of access control is to ensure that access to resources within an organization complies with the company’s policies and official regulations. While access policies are driven by many considerations, they largely fall under the category of security, privacy, and compliance. Restricting access to PIIs on a need-to-know basis is a common example of leveraging access control to protect sensitive data. Access control protects data by ensuring that only authorized entities can retrieve data from an organization’s data repositories. When effectively implemented, access controls prevent unauthorized and compromised users from accessing sensitive data.[1]

Types of Data Access Control

Organizations have to select a data access control policy that will best meet their requirements. There are four types of access control systems set apart by how the permissions are assigned to users.

  • Mandatory access control (MAC): This access model makes use of a central authority to assign access rights to all employees. The administrator classifies system resources and users based on their risk level and access requirements. Access to resources is based on the privileges that the user possesses. The MAC model provides a high level of data protection and is used by government agencies to secure highly classified information. While it provides a high level of protection, the MAC model is difficult to set up and use, which is why it is usually used along with other access models like discretionary access control (DAC).
  • Discretionary access control (DAC): In a DAC model, the data owner decides who is eligible to access their data. The owner sets policies that determine who is authorized to access the resource, which gives this model more flexibility and makes it perfect for small to medium-sized organizations. Also, this model is the least restrictive, as the owner has complete control over their files. The lack of a central authority makes this model hard to manage, as the ACL of each file has to be checked in case of any discrepancy.
  • Role-based access control (RBAC): The RBAC model is the most widely used control mechanism, as it aligns with the role and needs of every individual in the organization. It uses the principle of least privilege (POLP) to assign privileges based on the needs of an individual's role in the organization. Any user attempting to access data outside their scope is restricted.
  • Attribute-based access control (ABAC): The attribute-based access control (ABAC) mechanism is a next-generation authorization model that provides dynamic access control. In this method, the users and resources are assigned a set of variables, and access is dependent on the value assigned to the variable. The variables differ from the time of access to geographical location. For example, if an employee requests access to a file outside of business hours or from an unusual geographic location, then the ABAC model can be configured to restrict access to them.[2]

The Need for Data Access Control

Enterprises and SMBs alike store and process greater volumes of data than ever before. While the benefits of this are obvious, there are many other concerns to manage. The key is balancing the benefits of data-driven decision-making, including increased creativity, innovation, and productivity, with the need to maintain high standards across security, privacy, and compliance. This is where data access control comes into play. Below are four specific issues that data access control addresses.

  1. Security: The most obvious goal of access control is data security. In other words, ensuring that it is accessed only by the right people, in the right contexts. The idea is that only authorized entities can access data or carry out different actions on it. An entity here can mean a user, an automated process, or a particular platform. Of course, restricting access is just one weapon in your security arsenal. This sits alongside other tools including encryption, identity management, and hardware security solutions. Far from replacing these other techniques, data access control complements them by ensuring that an otherwise secure system isn’t circumvented, either deliberately or unintentionally. In fact, data access control is fundamental to any modern security strategy.
  2. Compliance: Privacy regulations are increasingly complex, especially for enterprises, or other companies that process personal data internationally. This places several constraints on how companies must treat data, especially where this concerns identifiable people. These constraints stem from established best practices, as well as formal regulations like GDPR, CCPA, HIPAA, PIPEDA, and NIST. While these all differ in terms of their specific content and the requirements placed on organizations, each one places limits on how subjects’ personal data can be accessed, and by whom. Most formal regulations stipulate in one way or another that only entities which need to access different data should be able to do so. Additionally, subjects’ data should only normally be accessed by the entities and for the reasons they initially consented to. As such, effective access control will inevitably form a core part of your compliance efforts.
  3. Efficiency: Data access control is also an important tool for maximizing efficiency across different applications, workflows, and processes. A key part of this is limiting the number of actions that users can take. At the level of applications, this helps to ensure that user interfaces are as streamlined and effective as possible. At the database level, it helps to minimize labor costs stemming from unnecessary errors, security breaches, and administration tasks. Additionally, different access control methods offer extra efficiency savings, particularly in terms of assigning and administering permissions. Check out our ultimate guide to role-based access control to find out more.
  4. Validity, accuracy & integrity: Finally, data access control is an essential way to ensure validity, accuracy, and integrity in your company’s stored data. Essentially, by limiting the number of users who can perform certain actions on your data, you’re also reducing the risk of human error in doing so. For example, if only certain users have permission to perform UPDATE or INSERT queries, there’s a far smaller risk of input errors, leading to incorrect values. You might do this across entire datasets, or at the level of individual entries, tables, or views. In any case, the goal is to limit the number of entities that can make changes to your data, reserving these permissions to users and processes that strictly need to add or update values.[3]

Implementing Data Access Control

Access control protects data on a computer against a variety of security threats, such as breaches, unauthorized access, unauthorized activities, unauthorized movement, and more. Keeping track of every point of data, how it is used, and by whom, is impractical without implementing modern data access control solutions. Implementing data access controls in an organization typically involves leveraging data access control tools like identity management and access management platforms. These tools provide software for access control, a database for all authorized users, and management tools for data access control policy, audits, and enforcement.

Automated identity and data access management solutions provide centralized, unified control over data across the organization; automate tasks such as provisioning; and ensure compliance with regulations like the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

Advanced modern data access control systems provide consistent visibility into all data activity, automated alerts for suspicious events, Just-In-Time access approvals, dynamic access management, and the ability to eliminate shared accounts for databases.[4]

See Also