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3.1: What are access controls?

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    Access Controls

    In computer security, general access control includes identification, authorization, authentication, access approval, and audit. A more narrow definition of access control would cover only access approval, whereby the system makes a decision to grant or reject an access request from an already authenticated subject (we will talk about the difference between authorization and authentication below), based on what the subject is authorized to access. Authentication and access control are often combined into a single operation, so that access is approved based on successful authentication, or based on an anonymous access token. Authentication methods and tokens include passwords, biometric scans, physical keys, electronic keys and devices, hidden paths, social barriers, and monitoring by humans and automated systems.


    Access control systems provide the essential services of authorization, identification and authentication (I&A), access approval, and accountability where:

    • authorization specifies what a subject can do
    • identification and authentication ensure that only legitimate subjects can log on to a system
    • access approval grants access during operations, by association of users with the resources that they are allowed to access, based on the authorization policy
    • accountability identifies what a subject (or all subjects associated with a user) did


    Authorization involves the act of defining access-rights for subjects. An authorization policy specifies the operations that subjects are allowed to execute within a system.

    Most modern operating systems implement authorization policies as formal sets of permissions that are variations or extensions of three basic types of access:

    • Read (R): The subject can
      • Read file contents
      • List directory contents
    • Write (W): The subject can change the contents of a file or directory with the following tasks:
      • Add
      • Update
      • Delete
      • Rename
    • Execute (X): If the file is a program, the subject can cause the program to be run. (In Unix-style systems, the "execute" permission doubles as a "traverse directory" permission when granted for a directory.)

    These rights and permissions are implemented differently in systems based on discretionary access control (DAC) and mandatory access control (MAC).

    Identification and authentication

    Identification and authentication (I&A) is the process of verifying that an identity is bound to the entity that makes an assertion or claim of identity - in other words, if someone claims to be John Doe, they I&A make sure that it is indeed John Doe. The I&A process assumes that there was an initial validation of the identity, commonly called identity proofing. Various methods of identity proofing are available, ranging from in-person validation using government issued identification, to anonymous methods that allow the individual person/system to remain anonymous, but will be known to the system if they come back to login in the future. The method used for identity proofing and validation should provide an assurance level commensurate with the intended use of the identity within the system. Subsequently, the entity asserts an identity together with an authenticator as a means for validation. The only requirements for the identifier is that it must be unique within its security domain.

    Authenticators, as were previously discussed, are commonly based on at least one of the following four factors:

    • Something you know, such as a password or a personal identification number (PIN). This assumes that only the owner of the account knows the password or PIN needed to access the account.
    • Something you have, such as a smart card or security token. This assumes that only the owner of the account has the necessary smart card or token needed to unlock the account.
    • Something you are, such as fingerprint, voice, retina, or iris characteristics.
    • Where you are, for example inside or outside a company firewall, or proximity of login location to a personal GPS device.

    Access approval

    Access approval is the function that actually grants or rejects access during operations.

    During access approval, the system compares the formal representation of the authorization policy with the access request, to determine whether the request shall be granted or rejected. Moreover, the access evaluation can be done online/ongoing.


    Accountability uses system components such as audit trails (records) and logs, to associate a subject with its actions. The information recorded should be sufficient to map the subject to a controlling user. Audit trails and logs are important for

    • Detecting security violations
    • Re-creating security incidents

    If no one is regularly reviewing your logs and they are not maintained in a secure and consistent manner, they may not be admissible as evidence in any type of legal proceedings.

    Many systems can generate automated reports, based on certain predefined criteria or thresholds, known as clipping levels. For example, a level may be set to generate a report for the following:

    • More than three failed logon attempts in a given period
    • Any attempt to use a disabled user account

    These reports help a system administrator or security administrator to more easily identify possible break-in attempts.

    Adapted from:
    "Computer access control" by Multiple ContributorsWikipedia is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

    3.1: What are access controls? is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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