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7.1. Overview

Access control concerns itself with restricting access to authorized persons and with establishing accountability. There are four terms that are commonly used in discussions related to access control:


Process in which a user presents his identity


Process of verifying the user is allowed to access the system


Process of verifying the user is allowed to access a particular resource


Ability to tell who accessed a resource and when, and whether the resource was modified as part of the access

From system users' point of view, they rarely encounter accountability, and the rest of the processes can appear to be a single step. When working as a system administrator, however, it is important to distinguish which operation is performed in which step and why. I have been very careful to word the definitions to reflect the true meanings of these terms.

Identification is the easiest process to describe. When required, users present their credentials so subsequent processes to establish their rights can begin. In real life, this is the equivalent of showing a pass upon entering a secure area.

The right of the user to access the system is established in the authentication step. This part of the process is often viewed as establishing someone's identity but, strictly speaking, this is not the case. Several types of information, called factors, are used to make the decision:

Something you know (Type 1)

This is the most commonly used authentication type. The user is required to demonstrate knowledge of some informatione.g., a password, passphrase, or PIN code.

Something you have (Type 2)

A Type 2 factor requires the user to demonstrate possession of some material access control element, usually a smart card or token of some kind. In a wider sense, this factor can include the time and location attributes of an access request, for example, "Access is allowed from the central office during normal work hours."

Something you are (Type 3)

Finally, a Type 3 factor treats the user as an access control element through the use of biometrics; that is, physical attributes of a user such as fingerprints, voiceprint, or eye patterns.

The term two-factor authentication is used to describe a system that requires two of the factors to be used as part of the authentication process. For example, to withdraw money from an ATM machine, you must present your ATM card and know the PIN number associated with it.

Before the authorization part of the access control process begins, it is already known who the user is, and that he has the right to be there. For a simple system, this may be enough and the authorization process practically always succeeds. More complex systems, however, consist of many resources and access levels. Within an organization, some users may have access to some resources but not to others. This is a normal operating condition. Therefore, the authorization process looks at the resource and makes a decision whether the user is allowed to access it. The best way to differentiate between authentication and authorization is in terms of what they protect. Authentication protects the system, while authorization protects resources.

Accountability requirements should be considered when deciding how authentication and authorization are going to be performed. For example, if you allow a group of people to access an application using identical credentials, you may achieve the first goal of access control (protecting resources) but you will have no way of knowing who accessed what, though you will know when. So, when someone leaks that confidential document to the public and no one wants to take the blame, the system logs will not help either. (This is why direct root login should never be allowed. Let the users log in as themselves first, and then change into root. That way the log files will contain a reliable access record.)

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