Chapter 4. Access Control

Going all the way back to early time-sharing systems we systems people regarded the users, and any code they wrote, as the mortal enemies of us and each other. We were like the police force in a violent slum.

— Roger Needham

Microsoft could have incorporated effective security measures as standard, but good sense prevailed. Security systems have a nasty habit of backfiring and there is no doubt they would cause enormous problems.

— Rick Maybury

Introduction

Access control is the traditional center of gravity of computer security. It is where security engineering meets computer science. Its function is to control which principals (persons, processes, machines, ...) have access to which resources in the system — which files they can read, which programs they can execute, how they share data with other principals, and so on.

Access control works at a number of levels (Figure 4.1).

Access controls at different levels in a system

Figure 4.1. Access controls at different levels in a system

  1. The access control mechanisms the user sees at the application level may express a very rich and complex security policy. A modern online business could assign staff to one of dozens of different roles, each of which could initiate some subset of several hundred possible transactions in the system. Some of these (such as refunds) might require dual control or approval from a supervisor. And that's nothing compared with the complexity ...

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