Q&A: What is Role-Based Access Control (RBAC)?

Q&A: What is Role-Based Access Control (RBAC)?

Rarely in cybersecurity does a thing as a straightforward question or answer exist. Even the most succinct explanation opens up dozens of new avenues for interrogation. For example, what is role-based access control (RBAC)? This simple question about a single identity security capability has answers which may determine the effectiveness of your overall IAM.

In this article, we answer some of your most pressing questions about role-based access control; with this knowledge, you should have a better understanding of what in your identity and access management needs improvement. Do you need an upgrade? Or could your enterprise benefit from an entirely new identity management solution?

What is Role-Based Access Control?

RBAC refers to an access security capability or tool which bases your users’ permissions on their roles within your enterprise.

Generally, role-based access control only permits users the access they absolutely need to perform their business tasks. Indeed, RBAC prevents regular users from accessing sensitive digital assets beyond their station. Therefore, it actually fulfills the much-touted identity security virtue of the Principle of Least Privilege.

What are the Benefits of Role-Based Access Control?

Your enterprise’s identity and access management can benefit from implementing strong RBAC, both in terms of security and productivity. For instance, RBAC can offer your business:

  • Increased Identity Security. Through RBAC, you ensure employee and privileged user credentials possess inherent limitations in their permissions. If a threat actor did compromise an employee credential, the damage it could wreak becomes proportionally reduced. RBAC restricts access to sensitive databases to a few individual accounts, thereby reducing the chances of a data leak.
  • Improved Business Processes. RBAC clearly assigns users to certain business processes and tasks, clarifying your workflows. Further, RBAC facilitates onboarding and offboarding. This allows for the easy accommodation for new users by providing roles to step into and reducing the chances of misassigned permissions.
  • Better Visibility. Visibility forms the heart and soul of modern cybersecurity. If you can’t see it, you can’t protect it. RBAC allows you greater visibility into your workflows, into your data activity and traffic, and into your users’ behaviors. All of this can provide valuable information on both possible efficiency improvements and alleged security events.
  • Compliance. Plenty of governmental and industrial regulatory mandates require certain confidentiality concerning databases. Moreover, often they also require certain roles within your organization carry (or don’t carry) certain privileges. Role-based access control facilitates both processes.
  • Automation. Once you established RBAC in your IT environment, you can then automate it to perform role assignment, onboarding, and offboarding. This takes a substantial burden off your IT security team, freeing them to perform other essential tasks.  

What Interferes with Role-Based Access Control?

A few mistakes and commonly overlooked issues can severely interfere with the deployment and effectiveness of your role-based access control. These include:

  • Your enterprise does not assign clear, delineated roles to all users, including privileged users.
  • Those assigned roles do not have the necessary assigned permissions to function.
  • The given roles possess far too many permissions, either because of oversight or because of not removing temporary privileges.
  • Your databases or digital assets continue to permit users without relevant roles to perform actions or transactions with them.

As you can see from this list, RBAC works as a two-way street. Not only should you restrict your employee’s permissions by their assigned roles, but your IT environment must require roles to allow for any digital activity. This adds another critical layer to your identity cybersecurity and management.

What Makes a Role?

Enterprises should carefully weigh how they develop and maintain the roles in their identity and access management policies. Your roles cannot solely rely on your business processes or tasks; instead, you must consider other factors such as your employee trust, their job proficiency, or whether they have specialist skills.

In addition, your enterprise needs to consider which databases, digital assets, and communications require the most protection. Only with this clarity can you define the roles necessary for your operations and build the right limitations.

Furthermore, your enterprise must consider how it enforces roles on your third-party users. We’ve detailed in previous articles the risks third-party actors can pose to your business. Hackers and insider threats target third-party users as stepping stones for their intended targets. Restricting their access severely limits their effectiveness as attack vectors without damaging your business relationship or processes.   

What About The Endpoint?

In next-generation identity security policies, devices don’t just function as tools or network gateways. In fact, they operate much in the same ways as users do; they have their own identities and their own behavior patterns to monitor for discrepancies.

Therefore, your enterprise needs to enforce role-based access controls on your connected endpoints as well. This best practice applies whether they are corporate-issued or an employee-owned BYOD  (bring-your-own-device). For example, you can institute rules dictating which devices can view certain documents and which can actually make changes to them. This helps limit potential attack vectors and reduces the chances of unwanted changes to your business processes.

How Can Identity Governance and Administration Help?

Next-generation identity governance and administration (IGA) certainly can help your enterprise deploy role-based access control. RBAC serves as one of the critical and core capabilities of most IGA solutions. Indeed, IGA solutions primarily serve to limit access creep—one of the most dangerous consequences of lacking proper RBAC.

Without role-based access controls, users slowly accumulate permissions over time, often from one-time projects or temporary substitutions. Their accounts boast of more and more permissions, attracting both external and internal threat actors. This is access creep, and it can most certainly lead your enterprise into a data breach.

Now’s the time to implement role-based access control through an identity governance solution. If you don’t take control of your identities, someone else will.

If you would like to learn more about RBAC or IGA, you should check out our free 2019 Buyer’s Guide! We cover the top vendors in the market, list their key capabilities, and provide our Bottom Line for free. You can download it with the button below!

Ben Canner

Ben Canner is an enterprise technology writer and analyst covering Identity Management, SIEM, Endpoint Protection, and Cybersecurity writ large. He holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree in English from Clark University in Worcester, MA. He previously worked as a corporate blogger and ghost writer. You can reach him via Twitter and LinkedIn.
Ben Canner