The Hidden Costs Of Inefficient Access Control

July 06, 2022//Isa Jones

Last Updated: July 25, 2022

Controlling what assets, data or systems a given user can access is the crux of modern cybersecurity architecture. Fine-grained access control keeps a system secure and prevents hypothetical costly scenarios (like an internal or third-party hack) from becoming reality.

However, many organizations don’t employ proper access controls, instead relying on trust, reputation, and an “external first” strategy when it comes to their cybersecurity. Those methods are a mistake, as not utilizing controls is the same as leaving your front door unlocked, your windows open and the car keys on the counter. You’re inviting bad actors and cybercriminals in, and they are all too eager to start stealing.

What Is Access Control?

Access control is exactly that, the control and precision over which user can access what within a system. Access controls create friction, and act as a stop gap for access governance policies, ensuring those policies are enforced through fine-grained controls such as: access notifications, access approvals, time-based access, Zero Trust Network Access, multi-factor authentication, and access schedules.

For internal users, access controls help keep privileged assets and data from falling into the wrong hands if a user (or their credentials) is compromised. Privileged Access Management, or PAM software can employ some of the strategies above to ensure that, when it comes to an organization’s most privileged assets, internal user access is restricted and double-checked. For external users, such as third parties or other vendors, access controls can limit what those users can access, preventing malicious access and limiting the attack surface if a breach does occur.

Three Problems That Arise From Inefficient Access Controls

If an organization has poor access controls, or lacks them all together, they are opening themselves up to massive risk. Ransomware is skyrocketing – 92% of breaches in the first quarter of 2022 involved ransomware — and all a hacker needs to gain access to an organization’s most sensitive, valuable assets is one unlocked door or mismanaged password. There are three major problems that can arise when an organization neglects their access controls:

1. Access policies set in place will not be followed by internal users. If a user is told that they cannot, or should not, access certain assets but there’s no control to stop them, then that policy can’t be adequately enforced. Access policies without proper access controls are just rules without consequences, and rely on trust and reputation instead of concrete measures. Zero trust is called zero trust for a reason — because trust is for suckers.

2. Third-party risk will intensify. It’s already known that third parties are a major risk point for organizations, with 51% of organizations having experienced a third-party breach in the past year. If there aren’t proper access controls for third parties entering an organization’s system, you’re literally handing over keys to the digital castle. If that third party is hacked, so is your organization. There’s no moat or drawbridge keeping the bad guys at bay. Not to mention that the human element accounts for 82% of hacks (18% from internal employee error), and yes, that element extends to third parties and vendors as well. 

3. Unauthorized access will increase, which could lead to a data breach. Whether it comes from an insider threat like a disgruntled employee, a third-party with too much access, or just user error, unauthorized access is a major risk for any organization. If you can get through the door, you can take what’s on the other side of it (or hold it for ransom), which is exactly what hackers want to do. Hackers are consistently looking for ways into an organization’s system, and ways to penetrate it deeper to find what’s most valuable — be it PHI at a healthcare organization or sensitive customer data at a retail organization. Without controls, that data is just sitting unguarded for anyone to grab and dash.

How To Gain Control Over Access Control

As stated above, control is crucial in protecting those most sensitive, valuable assets and access points. Gaining that control is easier said than done however. Organizations often find themselves short-staffed and overwhelmed when it comes to cybersecurity, especially when third parties are involved. But, being proactive is better (and cheaper) than being reactive, so it pays to pay attention to your organization’s access controls now instead of cleaning up a data breach later. 

Organizations can and should:

  • Take an inventory of their access points and assess whether those points need the friction of access controls. If an asset is high risk and high value, yes, it needs those extra controls in place.
  • Employ software to automate the access control process. Automation can save time, money, and ensure that access controls are in place where and when an organization needs them. Software like PAM solutions or third-party remote access software can employ controls, utilize ZTNA, and obfuscate credentials to prevent credential theft and unauthorized access. 
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