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In our full sandbox, our QA engineer has observed that one of our Lightning Components is failing. Upon further inspection, it turns out that the Apex class the component is calling is not accessible by the running user. Adding permissions to the class for his security profile solved the problem.

However, the same code is running in production and only the admin profile has access to the Apex class. Yet, non-admin users can call the class via the Lightning Component without any problems.

I took a look at the Winter '21 release notes, but didn't see any mention of Apex Class Permissions. Any ideas why we are seeing these inconsistent results?

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This is documented in the Winter 21 release notes here

This was a critical update in the last release itself but customers had option to skip its activation.

In the winter 21 release this security feature is auto enforced.

Your sandbox is on Winter 21 I believe and hence you see this change in effect while your PROD is still in Summer 20.

I suggest you have a changeset or a patch deploy in PROD to fix permissions of apex before this is rolled out. This can be done easily with help of a permission set providing necessary permissions. Check how you can easily find the apex classes needing permissions using a free open-source tool here

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