Access Control: The Complete Guide
November 11, 2021

What Is Access Control?

Access control helps organizations define who can access their critical physical and digital resources. It is a core part of data security that allows or denies users, devices and systems to access digital assets. Access control is also used to define the specific privileges allowed for certain users within specific physical areas or systems.

An access control policy is a set of rules that either deny or grant access and privileges. An automated policy can authenticate and authorize users according to predefined rules or baseline behavior. For example, a university can use different access control policies to restrict access to sensitive digital records (such as grades) to certain personnel while allowing access to course registration portals to all students.

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Benefits of Access Control

Access control solutions offer the following important advantages.

Know Who Is Present at All Times

Many organizations have physical and digital assets that require monitoring and oversight. An access control system monitors who’s coming and going from physical locations and online systems to make sure that an individual has not managed to sneak into the building. If an organization is large, with many employees, it might be hard for everybody to recognize who is an employee and who isn’t. An access control system assists with the identification of physical and virtual strangers (such as hackers), preventing them from entering undetected. 

Keep Track of Personnel

If an organization has several shifts with big groups of employees entering and leaving at strange hours, an access control system could help make order and let you know if an employee is inside the building or working within a virtual system when they should not be. It might also help to detect if unusual users are performing unusual activity during off hours.

Keep Sensitive Data Secure

Most organizations have data or documents that must be restricted, so they are not accessible to everybody in the organization. An access control system lets you restrict the access to specific areas that contain hardware or virtual locations hosting applications that this data is saved on.

Handle Joiners, Movers, and Leavers

When an employee resigns and doesn’t return their keys offering access to a physical location, the organization is left with the expense of creating new keys and maybe even switching the locks. This will also be relevant when an employee misplaces their company keys or changes a role in the organization. If the employee resigned on bad terms, changing the key also reduces the chance that they will attempt to re-enter the building and be destructive. 

The same concepts apply for access to virtual systems.  Organizations need an access control system in place to ensure that employees who have left the company cannot access systems any longer.  Additionally, as employees change roles, their access to old resources needs to be terminated, so they do not accrue more access than is necessary.

Access Control: a Core Component of Compliance Strategies

The main purpose of access control is to reduce the probability of events concerning unauthorized access to computer systems and physical facilities. It is a core component of data security, network security and information security. 

Access control is often an essential part of achieving compliance with a wide range of regulatory entities. Here are several regulations that require access control:

  • PCI DSS—regulates the use of credit and debit card data. Requirement 9 of PCI DSS states that organizations must allow physical access to company buildings only to onsite personnel, media, or visitors. This requirement also stipulates that companies must set adequate logical access controls designed to mitigate data theft risks. Requirement 10 asks organizations to implement security tools that track and monitor company systems in a manner that allows for an auditing assessment. 
  • HIPAA—regulates the use of protected health information (PHI). According to the HIPAA Security Rule, all covered entities (including business associates) must prevent any unauthorized disclosure of PHI. It usually involves implementing both physical and electronic access control measures.  
  • SOC 2—helps protect customer data stored in the cloud. This auditing process ensures that service providers and third-party vendors properly manage sensitive data. SOC 2 compliance checks if these parties set controls designed to protect employee and customer privacy and prevent data breaches. SOC 2 requires the implementation of several access controls, including data encryption and two-factor authentication. 
  • ISO 27001—requires management to systematically examine the attack vectors of the organization and audit all threats and vulnerabilities. It is an information security standard that helps organizations maintain information security and business continuity.
  • SOX – required management to put in place internal controls over access to physical and virtual records, including access control, segregation of duties, and periodics user access reviews 

5 Types of Access Control

Here are the main types of access control:

  1. Mandatory access control (MAC)—a security model that regulates access rights through the use of a central authority with multiple levels of security. MAC is typically used in military and government environments. It involves assigning classifications to system resources, the operating system (OS), or security kernel. The process then grants or denies access to resources according to the information security clearance assigned to each user or device. 
  2. Discretionary access control (DAC)—an access control method that allows the owners or administrators of a resource, system, or data, to define the policies grant or deny access. This method can help administrators limit the propagation of access rights, but there is no centralized control.
  3. Role-based access control (RBAC)—an access control mechanism that lets you restrict access to resources according to individuals or groups with certain business functions. Instead of using the identity of the user, RBAC authenticates using functions such as executive level or engineer level, for example. RBAC relies on a structure of role assignments, role permissions and role authorizations. It uses role engineering to control access to systems. You can use RBAC tools to enforce both DAC and MAC frameworks.
  4. Rule-based access control—a security model that lets system administrators define the rules that regulate access to resources. These rules are usually based on certain conditions, like the time of day or a specific location. You can use both RBAC and rule-based access control to enforce access policies and procedures across the organization.
  5. Attribute-based access control (ABAC)—a methodology that lets you manage access rights through an evaluation of a set of policies, relationships and rules as demonstrated by the attributes of systems, environmental conditions and users.

Related content: Read our guide to access control types (coming soon)

How Do Organizations Implement Access Control?

Here are several ways that can help organizations implement access control:


Authorization is a process that provides users with a set of permissions required to access the resources needed to perform their role.  These authorizations may be static or dynamic, and some authorizations are temporary while others are permanent.


Authentication is a process that validates the identity of a user. To prevent fake logins, organizations should use multi-factor authentication (MFA), which requires users to provide two or more of the following details:

  • Something the authorized user knows, such as a password.
  • Something the authorized user has, such as a token or smartphone.
  • Something that demonstrates the physical aspects of an authorized user, such as a face ID, fingerprint or biometric.

The majority of users experience difficulties when trying to create and remember complex passwords. This is why they often use the same passwords across their professional and personal login IDs. They may also attempt to solve this problem by using weak passwords.

Attackers often use databases of known weak passwords to launch brute force or dictionary attacks. This typically involves using software to run a list of known weak passwords against the directory of the organization. 

MFA adds a second step that can alert users that someone is attempting to use their password. It can also prevent malicious actors from successfully exploiting these passwords.

User Access

Here are several key methods that can help control and limit user access:

Principle of Least Privilege

This principle involves providing users with the minimum amount of privileges required to perform their unique roles and responsibilities. It can help ensure that users do not gain permissions they do not need and should not have. 

Segregation of Duties (SoD)

SoD controls can help prevent fraud. The goal is to ensure user access does not create a conflict of interest, which may be leveraged for fraud. For example, you can use SoD to prevent a user with access to accounts payable systems from having access to accounts receivable applications.

Learn more in our detailed guides for:

Application Controls

Application controls regulate how applications interact with data. The goal is to prevent any execution that may put information at risk. Traditionally, organizations control this type of access through firewalls. However, modern applications may interact with databases. Issues may also occur when applications have service accounts that can automatically connect to storage locations and devices.

Learn more in our detailed guide to application controls (coming soon)

Access Control Best Practices

Organizations should apply the following practices to ensure effective access control.

Conduct User Access Reviews

These reviews look at who in your organization retains access to various parts of the system and its sensitive information, and asks appropriate management personnel whether the employees require this access to carry out their job.  User access reviews are a critical aspect of managing by the principle of least privilege. According to this principle, users must retain access just to what they require, and nothing else.

A user access review must have a risk assessment of every user, from employment through to termination. The access review should assign risk levels and monitor them every now and again for changes, over the access lifecycle of the user. 

Third-party contractors, developers, terminated employees and employees all present specific and unique risks, and your organization should monitor all of these groups closely, and ensure their access is terminated swiftly after they leave the organization. 

Even if you have been conducting such reviews, it still might be necessary to update your review process to factor in vendors and employees who are working from home. The risk they present today might have changed.

Assign Roles to Each User

Providing every user with a role can help you organize their privilege level. This makes it easier to manage and assign access permissions through user access deprovisioning or provisioning. Role-based access control (RBAC) assists with simplification of identity management, developing a directory of users and assigning their access level in keeping with their role. This provides privileged access to specific privileged users only—for example, allowing entry to privileged accounts.

However, RBAC can be fairly complicated, and you may face the following issues:

  • Some groups or users might require permission for a limited time
  • Individuals’ jobs, and their degree of access, might vary
  • Individuals will leave and join the organization
  • Contractors will come and go
  • Some individuals working at home at the moment will not be doing so in the future.

To keep track of all these functions, you can use software to help manage these elements automatically.

Enable Automatic Onboarding/Offboarding

Access management helps you address major onboarding and offboarding issues. Typically, when an organization onboards a new vendor, employee, partner or contractor, the IT department manually assesses which permissions and privileges to grant them according to their specific user roles. Then, they must go into each individual system to grant the user access.  For large-scale organizations, or if you are scaling up, this can be very complex, and the manual method of provisioning increases the margin of error.  

An identity and access management solution allows you to automate onboarding and offboarding smoothly, saving time and money. You can also ensure that new employees have the correct permissions, and deprovision users quickly when they move to another department or leave the organization. 

Create a Remote Access Security Policy 

Remote access is the capacity of authorized personnel to gain access to a network or computer from a geographical distance, via a network connection. This is particularly relevant for branch office workers, employees working from home and business travelers. 

The policy for remote secure access must outline the protocols to be applied for remote access. It should stipulate which devices (i.e. BYOD or company owned) can connect, who is permitted to use those devices, and what the procedure is for wiping stolen or lost devices.

Consider incorporating these elements into your security policy:

  • Endpoint protection and management—often companies are seeking more than a proxy service in the cloud, as they add remote browser isolation (RBI), zero trust network access (ZTNA), sandbox, data loss prevention (DLP), firewall as a service (FWaaS), and other cloud-based security options.  
  • Encryption—makes sure all data is encrypted, whether at rest on an employee’s device or in transit. Encryption is an added layer of protection, which you can use in conjunction with secure authentication mechanisms and antivirus. It makes sure that even if cybercriminals manage to compromise a device, they won’t be able to use the sensitive data.

Related content: Read our guide to access control security (coming soon)

Access Control with Pathlock

Implementing proper access control solutions can be a stressful, expensive, and time consuming process, but it doesn’t have to be. Pathlock provides an automated, real-time solution to automating access control across all of your business systems. Furthermore, Pathlock’s continuous controls monitoring can ensure that you are always tracking your compliance requirements around acces control, so there are no major surprises when the audit season comes around. 

In today’s modern enterprise, nearly 100% of the financially relevant activity happens in modern applications like SAP, Oracle, Workday, and NetSuite. By connecting directly into your business applications, Pathlock can automatically provision and deprovision users in these applications to surface any violations to controls, and pinpoint and quantify the financial impact of any risks.  Internal and external auditors alike trust Pathlock’s reports to prove control enforcement and compliance with regulations like SOX, PCI DSS, and others

User Access Reviews

Pathlock supports automated user access reviews to ensure employees don’t have more access than is required.  The review workflow and reporting is completely automated, to ensure campaigns are completed accurately and on time.

Comprehensive Rulebook

Pathlock’s catalog of over 500+ rules, Pathlock can provide out-of-the-box coverage for compliance mandated access controls related to SOX, GDPR, CCPA, HIPAA, NIST, and other leading compliance frameworks. 

Real-time Access Mitigation

Pathlock allows user to quickly investigate and respond to potential risky transactions by reviewing access, deprovisioning users, forcing 2FA, or even allowing Pathlock to respond intelligently in real-time, terminating suspicious sessions and blocking transactions in real time

Out-of-the-Box Integrations

Pathlock’s out of-the-box integrations extend workflows to the other IAM tools you already have in place such as ServiceNow, SailPoint, Okta, Azure AD, SAP GRC, and more

Lateral SOD Correlation

All entitlements and roles are correlated across a user’s behavior, consolidating activities and showing cross application SOD’s between financially relevant applications

Emergency Access Management

Pathlock reduces risk by providing a turnkey solution for granting and revoking elevated privileges on a just-in-time basis.  Furthermore, Pathlock monitors 100% of the activity performed with these elevated privileges, to assist with proving compliance mandates.

Learn more about Pathlocks access control solution