The Benefits of Access Control Lists

By Gema Sundstrom
January 08, 2020

Many companies today organize their networks using access control lists, or ACLs. These lists can be useful, but difficult to understand. Below, we demystify access control lists so you don’t have to. 

What Is an Access Control List?

Access control lists are permission-based systems that assign people in an organization different levels of access to files and information. They function as permission slips indicating that a user needs to open a particular network device, file, or other information. Companies can also use access control lists to create levels of access privileges. For example, some individuals may receive administrator privileges, while others are only granted access at the basic user level. This way, a company can specify in detail how much information employees can see and edit. 

There are five main types of access control:

  • Mandatory access control is a very strict model that was designed for the government. While it is very secure, it can be vague, difficult, and costly. Most organizations rely on mandatory access control in conjunction with one of the other four types.
  • Discretionary access control allows individuals users to decide who can access his or her data. It is often used in social networks when people want to change the visibility of their content. While it is more flexible than mandatory access control, it makes it easy for users to give the wrong people access by accident.
  • Role-based access control allows companies to grant access based on users’ job functions. It is commonly used by businesses to share data with certain departments.
  • Rule-based access control grants or denies access based on pre-defined rules created by an administrator. Users can’t change anything. 
  • Attribute-based access control introduces special policies that combine attributes for resources, objects, and users. These may include names, departments, positions, and IP addresses, among others. 

Why Are Access Control Lists Necessary?

Access control lists in networking offer privacy, security, and simplicity for large corporations that house large amounts of data. Below are some additional reasons why a company might use access control lists: 

One of the most important functions of access control lists is the ability to prevent unauthorized users from accessing sensitive services or information. While it is important for employees to be able to access the data they need, it is sometimes even more crucial that a company protects its data from outside individuals. A common example is medical institutions. Hospitals and other health-related facilities need to keep patients’ information private and secure; access control lists are a great way for them to do so. 

Corporations that do business with outside or third-party clients may find access control lists useful because they limit clients’ access to a corporation’s data. This prevents outside individuals from finding sensitive or restricted information. 

Large companies have powerful networks, but even the most intricate networks can only handle so much traffic at once. Networks that receive too much user traffic may slow down, which makes it harder for companies to do business. By controlling how many users can access certain files or systems, access control lists limit network traffic and in turn increase network performance. This saves companies money because they can get the most out of their current network instead of spending to upgrade and increase their network regularly. 

In short, access control lists are an additional form of security that companies can use to safeguard their information. In an age where more people are growing increasingly concerned about the privacy of their data, these benefits can prove invaluable. 

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Examples of Access Control Lists

It may be easier to understand the design and function of access control lists by examining some more common examples. 

A company’s HR department may have sensitive files containing employees’ payroll information. This is information that the company and the employees want to keep private. In order to prevent these files from being seen by other employees, the company implements an access control list. Now, only the HR department can see the payroll files. 

The IT department notices that the company’s network has detected malicious activity from a specific IP address. The company wants to protect itself from hackers or other individuals who could be responsible for this strange activity. The IT department sets up an access control list and permanently blocks the address from the company’s network. Now the company’s data is protected from the activity. 

‍A company has just finished writing a guide for its customers and wants a copy editor to proofread it. The company designs an access control list to control who can see and edit the document. The guide’s author receives full access so he or she can continue to update the guide as is necessary. The copy editor receives partial access so he or she can suggest edits. The consumers receive read-only access so they can read the guide without editing anything.

Gema Sundstrom

Office Manager at Kisi