In computer security, mandatory access control (MAC) refers to a type of access control by which the operating system constrains the ability of a subject or initiator to access or generally perform some sort of operation on an object or target. In practice, a subject is usually a process or thread; objects are constructs such as files, directories, TCP/UDP ports, shared memory segments, IO devices, etc.
Subjects and objects each have a set of security attributes. Whenever a subject attempts to access an object, an authorization rule enforced by the operating system kernel examines these security attributes and decides whether the access can take place. Any operation by any subject on any object is tested against the set of authorization rules (aka policy) to determine if the operation is allowed. A database management system, in its access control mechanism, can also apply mandatory access control; in this case, the objects are tables, views, procedures, etc.
With mandatory access control, this security policy is centrally controlled by a security policy administrator; users do not have the ability to override the policy and, for example, grant access to files that would otherwise be restricted. By contrast, discretionary access control (DAC), which also governs the ability of subjects to access objects, allows users the ability to make policy decisions and/or assign security attributes.
(The traditional Unix system of users, groups, and read-write-execute permissions is an example of DAC.) MAC-enabled systems allow policy administrators to implement organization-wide security policies. Under MAC (and unlike DAC), users cannot override or modify this policy, either accidentally or intentionally. This allows security administrators to define a central policy that is guaranteed (in principle) to be enforced for all users.
Historically and traditionally, MAC has been closely associated with multilevel security (MLS) and specialized military systems. In this context, MAC implies a high degree of rigor to satisfy the constraints of MLS systems. More recently, however, MAC has deviated out of the MLS niche and has started to become more mainstream. The more recent MAC implementations, such as SELinux and AppArmor for Linux and Mandatory Integrity Control for Windows, allow administrators to focus on issues such as network attacks and malware without the rigor or constraints of MLS.