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April 2002

Access control issues: The unsolvable problem

Nineteenth-century satirist Ambrose Bierce once defined history as "a recording of mistakes we make so we shall know when we make them again." This couldn't be truer when it comes to computer security. As we have moved from mainframe to client/ server to peer-to-peer networks, security has come full circle on the thorny issue of access control. Back in the '70s, access control to classic mainframes was defined by physical security. If you could walk up to the card reader and plop down a deck of punched cards, you could run a program. By and large, the data and program were altogether on those cards. With the advent of timesharing came the need for the operating system to separate the data from the code. However, this wasn't engineered with a great degree of efficiency. Largely, we relied on mainframe applications to manage access control. This meant access control was revisited, redesigned and re-implemented with every application. Well, it didn't take very long for smart people to realize that this was a pretty dumb idea. In ...

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