The volume of data breaches has reached an all-time high, according to the Identity Theft Resource Center. A recent report published by the non-profit outfit found that the volume of compromised data in 2021 increased 68% over the number reported in 2020.
This alarming statistic underscores the growing importance of controlling access to sensitive information. Enter access control.
Access control refers to a wide range of security systems designed to grant or deny access to a given resource, whether it's the key fob that locks and unlocks your car doors or the screen lock feature that protects your mobile phone.
Facilitating secure access is especially vital in the world of information technology, where administrators and business leaders demand the utmost security for mission-critical network operations. There are a number of options available for the task at hand, but few offer the stability and overall reliability of mandatory access control (MAC).
In this article, we will take a detailed look at mandatory access control, outlining the strengths, weaknesses, and best practices for implementation.
What Is Mandatory Access Control?
Mandatory access control is a security concept that prioritizes the overall system over the user, device, or application. A centralized framework, it grants full system access to a single user with administrative permissions and limits access to individual users with least privilege permissions.
The concept is contrary to discretionary access control (DAC), which generally grants administrative-level privileges to multiple users who can then assign specific access to other groups of users.
Per the MAC model, only the operating system or system administrator has the authority to grant, deny, or modify access in accordance with a defined set of policies. In this environment, even a high-ranking corporate executive would require an authorized clearance level in order to view or modify employee data. They would only receive that clearance after the system administrator has explicitly factored that required access into the company's access policies.
Pros and Cons of Mandatory Access Control
On the surface, mandatory access control is the ideal security solution. Practically speaking, however, it does come with a few drawbacks. Let's take a closer look at some advantages and disadvantages MAC brings to the table.
Reliable security: The MAC model is designed to ensure a high level of security, confidentiality, and integrity. As such, it is widely considered to be the most secure of any access control model.
Role-based access control (RBAC): MAC encourages rock-solid security out of the box. Administrators can determine exactly who needs access to what resources based on their roles and specific access needs. Improved security is the byproduct of simply ensuring that users can only access information they need to work efficiently.
Eliminates user error: Mandatory access control grants all authority to an administrator while limiting users to read-only levels of access. This means organizations can prevent the costly errors that may result from a user making changes to system configurations or sensitive information.
Lack of flexibility: Inflexible by nature, MAC lacks the user-friendliness of other access control models. Users must formally submit requests to unlock new levels of access, which can be rather tedious and potentially hinder productivity depending on how the organization structures the approval process.
Complex management: The stringent approach mandatory access control takes to IT security makes simply sharing information difficult. In theory, a system administrator has to perform manual updates each time a user needs to access information outside of their defined clearance level.
Limited use cases: As you can see from the above disadvantages, tightest security isn't necessarily the most practical security. In fact, the MAC model could prove more cumbersome than useful when it comes to accommodating levels of access as business needs advance.
Who Needs MAC Security?
Generally speaking, mandatory access control is best suited for organizations that not only require the utmost security but can afford to sacrifice simplicity and flexibility at the management and user levels respectively.
This sort of compromise makes sense in instances such as top-secret national security and military intelligence applications as well as computer security. For instance, modern versions of the Unix variant FreeBSD use the framework to enforce rule-based firewall support, port access control, and multi-level security (MLS), the latter of which is a core principle of mandatory access control.
When coupled with the flexibility challenges, the system is so complex that MAC can be intimidating. However, we’re here to help. We’ve outlined a series of best practices to consider as you implement mandatory access control.
1. Enforce Access Control Policies and Procedures
Your organizational risks increase with each instance of access — users, systems, and devices included. For this reason, access rights should only be granted on a need-to-know basis. The severity of those risks will vary depending on individual levels of access, so access control policies and procedures should be designed accordingly.
Policy enforcement is generally a straightforward process designed to grant access based on a defined set of organizational standards. Depending on your organization, the accompanying procedures could be tailored around rules assigned to specific user roles, departments, or applications. An example would be configuring your MAC system to only allow employees in human resources to access cloud apps from company-approved devices.
2. Segment System Access
When it comes to access control, it's critical to understand that not all users are created equal. Streamline your MAC system by leveraging the tried and proven privilege concept to create individual access control lists.
For example, system administrators, IT security personnel, and employees can all be placed in groups with their own specific access permissions. Each group represents an individual role in the MAC system, with its privileges restricted to the security clearance rules provisioned in our second step.
3. Keep Vendor Partnerships in Mind
The need-to-know approach to access control should be applied to suppliers, contractors, and service providers as well. Make sure third-party user clearance is carefully monitored throughout the lifecycle of the relationship. In the event that a partnership is terminated, the associated access permissions should be promptly removed from the system to seal those security gaps.
4. Regularly Review Access Privileges
Maintaining a secure access control system is an ongoing process. Company leaders are strongly advised to adopt a review program that assesses the functionality of the MAC system against a set schedule. Of course, the ideal schedule depends on a number of individual factors. Just keep in mind that the goal is to settle on a frequency that allows you to determine how well those controls hold up as time and technology evolves.
5. Consider a Blended Access Control Model
Uncompromising nature aside, mandatory access control can be made to play nice with others. Microsoft accomplishes this by leveraging the aforementioned DAC to grant varying degrees of access at the user level while implementing a zero trust-based form of MAC across Windows itself to control access to the boot process and critical system resources.
In a more practical example, you could use DAC to grant flexible file-sharing between employees, while relying on the stubborn MAC to lock down your most precious corporate data.
Maximize Your MAC Model
Mandatory access control is a trusted IT security model. Implemented across multiple verticals, the concept is best for applications that require high levels of protection. Although it is not without its downsides, you can take comfort in knowing that a sound game plan can position MAC to make a huge difference in your overall security prowess.
Rest assured that you don't have to tackle cybersecurity alone. Learn more about how ThreatKey can inspire confidence in your access management strategy.
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