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Role-Based Access Control (RBAC)

Role-based access control (RBAC) is a method of limiting network access based solely on an individual’s role within an organization. RBAC is now considered the leading method for advanced access control to enterprise assets. RBAC aims to protect sensitive data from improper access, modification, addition, deletion, and theft. 

RBAC takes a minimalist approach, similar to Zero Trust. RBAC allows employees access to the information required to fulfill their responsibilities, but generally nothing more. Access rights and permissions are given to authorized users based on their positions and the access they need to do their jobs. The goal is to protect business-critical data.

The roles in RBAC refer to employees’ access levels to the network. These categories of roles are generally associated 1:1 with a specific position description. RBAC involves setting permissions and privileges so that authorized users can gain access. Most large organizations use role-based access control to protect sensitive data. Large organizations’ goals are to ensure that employees can only access information and perform actions they need to do their jobs and nothing more.

The organization generally assigns a role-based access control role to every employee. You can think of it as a profile that maps to their position and responsibility requirements within the organization. The role, in turn, determines which permissions the system grants to the user. For example, suppose you are hired as a manager for a research department. In that case, you might have more access permissions than a research specialist working in a specialized group with the same department. Permissions can vary substantially, even for access to the same data. For example, an organization may let some workers create or modify files while assigning others only the permissions for viewing.

Generally, entry-level or perhaps lower-level employees usually do not have access to data if they do not need it to fulfill the responsibilities of their job position. RBAC makes it easier to set up permissions for third parties and contractors that must utilize your internal networks. RBAC is an excellent strategy for securing your company’s sensitive data and controlling access to the applications that support access to it.

Through RBAC, you can control your users as their responsibilities change over time.  When a user’s position changes, you can manually assign their old role to another user. RBAC administrators can also give roles to a role group or add or remove members of a role group using a role assignment policy.

RBAC administration generally allows you to:

  • Management role scope limits the resources the role group is allowed to manage.
  • Management role group allows the addition and removal of members.
  • Management role defines the types of tasks allowed by a specific role group.
  • Management role assignment links a role group to a specific set of roles.

Once a user is assigned to a role group, they can access all the roles in that group. Access becomes restricted and/or suspended if this user is removed. Some users may be assigned, multiple groups. For example, a user may be associated with projects that are created, run for a period, and then end.  

Role-based access control allows organizations to strengthen their security posture and implement many essential compliance requirements. However, to be successful, planning for RBAC requires broad organizational approval and alignment by your internal stakeholders. There are several steps to consider:

  • Your organization should run a comprehensive needs analysis to examine job functions, supporting business processes, and technologies. In addition, considerations should be made for any compliance, regulatory, and audit requirements versus the current security posture of your organization. You may also want to use other forms of access control in addition to RBAC.
  • Now your organization should define the scope of your RBAC plan in alignment and plan the implementation to align with the organization’s needs. For example, it may make sense to tighten the scope to address sensitive data in databases and applications first. This capability will also make it easier for your team to manage the transition.
  • Role definitions will come out of the needs analysis. You must have an understanding of how individuals perform their tasks. There will be many areas that require close review, including role overlap, the level of drill down required, and how far permissions can be limited. 
  • Rollout and implementation of the RBAC is the big and final step. It is recommended to stage this to avoid a dangerous workload spike to reduce interruption to the business. You also risk introducing errors, so you can recover and correct any problems by doing this in steps. It is good to start with a small group of users to see how your new rollout process works. Probably start with the most coarse-grained access control before increasing granularity and locking down too many new applications. Then, of course, you need to collect user feedback and see how things work out before starting the next tranche of your rollout.

You will see there is somewhat of a similarity between RBAC roles and traditional groups. Usually, a group is a collection of users – not a collection of permissions. Permissions can also be associated directly with users and the groups to which the users belong. RBAC requires all access through roles. Under no circumstances are permissions to be connected to users – only to the role to which they are assigned. RBAC also includes the concept of a session – this allows activating a subset of roles assigned to a user.  

RBAC benefits ultimately should include:

  • Reduced administrative work and the associated information technology team support.
  • Increased operational efficiency.
  • Improved compliance and reduction or elimination of compliance-related permission errors. 

RBAC Versus Access Control Lists (ACL)

Most experience administrators, CISOs, and information technology managers will agree that RBAC is superior to ACL in terms of overall security and administrative overhead. However, ACL may be best suited for implementing individual user-level security. This consideration will come up in your due diligence to consider and implement RBAC, so you should be prepared by researching this ahead of time.


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