What is adaptive access control?

Adaptive access control is the process of using IT policies that allow administrators to control user access to applications, files, and network features based on multiple real-time factors. It is more flexible and secure than a legacy "moat" approach.

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Why does adaptive access control matter?

Companies dealing with unprecedented IT expansion and evolution should ask themselves a few questions about their security and access control policies. 

Are they using strategies that will truly protect against the types of threats they'll face today? Have they adequately prepared for the rise of remote work and bring your own (BYO) device policies? Will their chosen security approaches allow employees to work efficiently rather than interrupting workflows?

To answer "yes" to those questions, IT departments will have to go beyond legacy methods that were designed with in-office employees and corporate-owned hardware in mind. Those traditional security approaches were rigid and focused on binary options—some actions were allowed and others were blocked, with very little nuance. A better approach was needed.

Adaptive access control allows IT departments to set granular security policies that affect every application, API, software tool, and network resource their employees use. When implemented effectively, such an approach combines strong, flexible cybersecurity with a simple end user experience, keeping businesses safe and efficient as conditions change around them.

Why do companies need adaptive access control?

While technology evolution has never been static, the past few years have been especially eventful. Many companies that previously experimented with remote or hybrid workforce models suddenly found themselves using these strategies 100% of the time during COVID-19. Cloud service adoption rates spiked and BYOD technology became essential to continued operations.

As the pace of digital transformation accelerates, IT teams need to make sure these changes don't outpace their ability to keep networks and user accounts secure. Cybercriminals constantly look for vulnerabilities in corporate systems, and periods of rapid change are likely times for them to strike.

This is where concepts such as adaptive access control can truly prove their worth, providing organizations with flexible ways to protect systems. Traditional approaches to security—building proverbial moats around important network resources using firewalls and VPNs—simply doesn't work when employees are relying on personal devices and networks to access software remotely.

IT admins need access control policies that acknowledge the numerous ways users log in and use company resources. Adaptive access control technology uses modern analytics, machine learning, and automation to grant an appropriate level of access for each user session.

What are the key components of adaptive access control?

An adaptive access control policy should incorporate several modern security approaches, creating the ideal combination of user flexibility and wide-ranging security. A solution that is too rigid tends to fail on both counts, restricting users' actions while still failing to keep them safe from novel threat types such as zero-day attacks. Going beyond a limited security solution means embracing:

  • Zero trust network access (ZTNA): Using a zero trust approach to security means never assuming a user session is safe simply because an individual has entered correct credentials. Constant monitoring and analysis provide an extra layer of protection.
  • Adaptive authentication: Supporting ZTNA means scanning a user's relative threat level both before and after granting access. Factors such as geolocation, device posture, and user risk score are subject to continuous reassessment, with access permissions being automatically adjusted accordingly.
  • Single sign-on (SSO): Since adaptive access control systems with ZTNA and adaptive authentication don't base security levels on the simple question of whether a user has entered credentials, they're a perfect match for SSO. This means a user enters a single set of authentication credentials for all applications, making for convenient workflows.

Adaptive access control can apply to a variety of applications today. Whether an organization hosts applications in its own datacenter or uses cloud apps with a SaaS model, IT departments can introduce this advanced and context-driven form of access control.

It's up to the IT department to decide what level of access is appropriate. When a user's risk score increases, potentially due to their location or the kind of device they're using, the features available to them may be affected. Rather than selecting whether a user has access to an app or not, the IT department can switch off capabilities such as the ability to take a screenshot or to use a device's USB drive. These precautions exist to prevent the potential loss of sensitive data while not interrupting the user experience. The result is higher productivity for legitimate users and defenses against hackers.

Static vs. adaptive access control: What's the difference?

The problems with legacy access control methods come down to one central idea: they were designed for a version of IT that no longer exists at many organizations. Expanding beyond the perimeter of the traditional enterprise datacenter means widening a business's potential attack surface, and static access control policies are not flexible enough to make this transition.

Network Legacy security: policies based on trust

For many years, the concept of corporate application security was relatively simple. Using these methods today may leave organizations vulnerable, limit their efficiency, or do both. These static access control policies are based on whitelisting. Certain URLs and user profiles receive access to a list of specific applications.

When users need remote access, they take advantage of solutions such as a virtual private network (VPN). This prevents them from employing their own BYOD devices and network connections, while also granting too much trust to users who have the right credentials.

Once an account or device has been whitelisted, the system may not detect malicious activity from that device. In an era of indirect attack types such as spear phishing, this represents a dangerous security loophole. Add this risk profile to the inconvenience of disallowing BYO devices, and it's clear that traditional security has become outdated.

Adaptive access control: zero trust and constant adaptation

The modern networking environments companies use today have evolved beyond the point where a perimeter-based approach featuring a static access control model can protect them. Not only do remote and hybrid workforces include employees working from a wide variety of devices from their own locations, but the applications they access have also become more complex as well.

IT departments today are tasked with protecting apps hosted in private clouds, public clouds, and on-premises datacenters. With an adaptive access control method employing ZTNA principles, it's possible to oversee all these systems from a single, cloud-based security suite.

The monitoring and access control technologies deployed across these sprawling networks allow IT departments to carefully guard against advanced threats without the painstaking process of setting up dozens of security tools. The managed security stack demands less manual input from IT professionals, while still delivering a level of protection that would be impossible with more rigid tools.

How do companies combine access control with user experience?

When selecting a security approach, the first consideration is keeping apps, users, and information safe from threats. That isn't the only factor IT departments should use to choose how they protect their technology, however. They should also consider the impact on the user experience.

Productivity depends on users being able to access all the digital tools and resources associated with their roles. Adaptive access control allows IT departments to set access profiles that will give employees these capabilities automatically, ensuring they don't have to keep interrupting workflows to verify their identities or log into extra applications. With access management and permissions handled automatically, these steps go into the background.

In cases where there is an elevated security risk level, or when an employee is trying to use a feature beyond their usual needs, the IT department can manually verify the user’s identity. At other times, the adaptive authentication and access control systems are unobtrusive and essentially invisible.

The other major benefit to user experience lies in the adaptive access control systems’ ability to enable employees to log in from a wide variety of locations and BYOD endpoints. While more restrictive static access control policies may have excluded such devices altogether, preventing remote employees from getting work done in their preferred ways, modern access control frees them up.

Citrix solutions for adaptive access control

The ideal access control provider for a modern company will have a few specific features, setting itself apart from the generations of legacy technology that came before. This platform will be:

  • Adaptive to multiple factors, from user risk profile to device status and location, providing better security than traditional perimeter methods and enabling remote work on BYOD devices.
  • User-friendly and unobtrusive, delivering appropriate access while never impeding the user experience and supporting features such as SSO.
  • Based in the cloud, so it is always up to date and can affect all applications, no matter where they are hosted, while also demanding minimal manual input from IT teams.

Businesses get such a system when they select Citrix Secure Private Access as their ZTNA security and access control solution. Having this technology in place is an essential step in expanding into a new era of remote work and cloud-enabled expansion.