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What Is Role-Based Access Control (RBAC)?

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Role-Based Access Control (RBAC) Defined

As the global economy continues to drive digitalization, mass amounts of personal and financial data are being stored. According to one recent study, the total amount of data created, consumed, copied, and captured globally grew from 33 zettabytes (ZB) to almost 60ZB in just two years. Estimates project it to rise to 175ZB by 2025. Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Amazon alone store at least 1,200 petabytes of information.

Growing in parallel to this surge in data storage is the frequency and cost of data breaches and other cyberattacks. The number of data breaches as of September 2021 is up by 17% from 2020, and data compromises are up 27%. A 2021 report by IBM and the Ponemon Institute estimates that a single data breach can cost an organization over $4 million. And what is the chief cause of such breaches? Compromised credentials.

Access Control To Protect Data and Networks

The key to data and network protection is access control, the managing of permissions and access to sensitive data, system components, cloud services, web applications, and other accounts. Role-based access control (RBAC), or role-based security, is an industry-leading solution with multiple benefits. It is a feature of network access control (NAC) and assigns permissions and grants access based on a user’s role within an organization. 

RBAC is an efficient way to manage access and protect sensitive data and can be illustrated this way:

Imagine a hotel with doors that are accessed by a keycard. A guest is given a keycard that accesses a single room, a maid is given a card that accesses any room on an assigned floor, and a maintenance worker is given a card that accesses all doors in the building. All are given cards, but the extent of access is determined by their role.

Large organizations can further streamline RBAC by creating groups. The roles are assigned to the group, so while personnel can be moved around within the organization, their access depends on the group they have been assigned to.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Role-Based Access Control

What is role-based access control? While role-based access control benefits security, workflows, and compliance, it can also lead to complications. Here are some of the benefits and drawbacks of RBAC.

What Is RBAC: Advantages

When used strategically, RBAC comes with a few key benefits, including:

  1. Better security: RBAC can dramatically reduce the effect of human vulnerabilities because many access privileges that could be exploited are eliminated. As a role-based access control example, say someone from marketing falls victim to a phishing attack. If they do not have access to the sensitive database the hacker is after, then the damage is minimized.
  2. Streamlined compliance: Compliance requirements, such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), dictate who should be allowed access to specific types of information. Using RBAC, it is easy to prevent noncompliant access.
  3. Less work for admins: With role-based access control, an admin can easily change access privileges for either individuals or teams of people all at once. This saves time while ensuring employees have on-demand access to an area of the network they need.

What Is RBAC: Disadvantages

RBAC roles come with drawbacks as well, but some of the disadvantages can be averted with careful planning.

  1. Admins need specific operational knowledge: The accepted RBAC meaning involves understanding who does what and the tools they need to do it. This means an IT admin may have to devote considerable time figuring out what everyone does and how, which may be challenging, especially in larger organizations.
  2. RBAC can be inflexible: User roles sometimes may have to change. If someone on the sales team is pulled in to help out with billing, for example, they have to be granted new permissions—even if for just a day. This can be a hassle, especially if the admin is not expecting the change.

Role-Based Access Control (RBAC) Examples

The foundation for RBAC is the zero-trust network security model. Think of it as granting the least amount of privilege or access each user needs to do their job. As a person’s job changes, so does their role, and so does their access. In this way, no one retains access to data, accounts, or systems no longer required by their role, keeping vulnerabilities to a minimum. 

Here are some role-based access control examples to illustrate this:

  1. Marketer: Personnel in this role may need access to data such as email or client lists and demographics, as well as access to accounts in platforms like Google Ads, Google Analytics, Facebook Ads, and social media planners such as HubSpot.
  2. Accountant: Employees in this role may need access to invoices, receivables, price lists, and online banking, as well as accounting and tax service platforms such as QuickBooks, Xero, or ADP.
  3. Human resource manager: This role may require access to personal data and banking information for employees, resumes, and software such as BambooHR and Lever.
  4. IT staff: IT personnel may need access to the means for tracking RBAC, such as Active Directory. They may also need to access servers where data is stored, connected devices, and employees' machines, whether physically or virtually.

These are just general examples to demonstrate how RBAC works. Within these roles would be varying levels of access and permissions based on the position of the person within that role. For example, a junior software engineer would normally have less authorized access than a senior software engineer, and so forth.

Importance of RBAC in Enterprise Security

For enterprises, RBAC simplifies identity governance and administration (IGA) as the organization grows and expands. According to the 2020 Identity and Access Management (IAM) Report, over 60% of organizations agree that RBAC is one of the key supports of IAM. What are its benefits?

Segurança

RBAC helps reduce and even eliminate insider threats. It improves system and application security in three areas:

  1. Information security: Managing the access and use of available information protects a business from malicious attacks, theft, and misrepresentation.
  2. Data security: Stored data is not open-access. Rather, clearly defined roles provide access to only the data that is needed for that particular role.
  3. Web application security: Access to web applications is determined by role. Web security also extends to an organization’s website(s).

RBAC decreases the risk of a data breach because access to sensitive information is restricted.

Efficiency

RBAC increases efficiency by decreasing the need for password changes and human error in assigning permissions. It also streamlines the onboarding and offboarding of employees and reduces certification fatigue. The best news is that increased efficiency translates to decreased costs. Companies can save on storage, memory, bandwidth, and other resources.

Conformidade

RBAC is an effective strategy for maintaining compliance with federal, state, and local laws and regulations. Its structure makes it easier to manage how sensitive data is accessed and used in compliance with regulatory and statutory requirements.

Visibilidade

RBAC provides increased visibility to managers and administrators while reducing unauthorized visibility among employees. More containment of sensitive data and critical systems results in minimal risk.

Access control for remote users

Implementing Access Control for Remote Users: Security Risks and Challenges

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Role-Based Access Control (RBAC) vs. Attribute-Based Access Control (ABAC)

Role-Based Access Control (RBAC)

A role-based access control implementation groups people according to certain job characteristics. For example, they may be grouped by work location, department, duties, or seniority level. Within those groups, permissions are defined that govern what they have access to, what actions they can take, and how long they will have access. 

There are various methods that can be used to apply this policy:

  1. Flat RBAC: Roles are created so that each user has permissions, and then all employees are given at least one role. When employees need more access, they are given multiple roles, each with the needed permissions—rather than a new singular role with all the permissions. In this way, roles can be added or taken away as needed.
  2. Hierarchical RBAC: Roles are created by seniority level. Each level of seniority also has access to everything below that level. Only one role needs to be assigned. Changes in role are comparable to a promotion or demotion.
  3. Constrained RBAC: With each role, duties are separated. This means that each role requires a team, with each member assigned a portion of the duties. This approach is very secure for sensitive projects.
  4. Symmetrical RBAC: Role permissions are assigned but periodically reviewed to prevent unused access and permissions from accumulating. Roles are more fluid than static.

Attribute-Based Access Control (ABAC)

ABAC sets permissions and access according to criteria—namely, the user’s job title and seniority level, the attributes of the resources they access, and the environment in which they will be operating. These variables coordinate to allow or disallow access as needed. The policies are generally defined by if/then logic. For example, if the person has this title, then they can access this part of the system, and so on.

Pros and Cons

While ABAC allows for many variables, providing additional flexibility, it can be complex to define and configure. On the other hand, RBAC is usually simple to configure and execute and requires less processing power.

What Are the Best Practices for RBAC Implementation?

To benefit from the increased security and efficiency of RBAC, the strategy must be deployed the right way. Here are some role-based access control best practices and tips:

  1. Clean up first: Before implementing RBAC, clean up any preexisting entitlements and bad data. 
  2. Start small and stay sensible: Create the more familiar roles first. This will help properly define additional roles later. Keep in mind that RBAC is like maintenance, not a cure. Deploy it in phases and refine as you go along.
  3. Avoid failure: Target areas of your business where policies are already clearly defined. Make sure an operation IAM system is already in place. Enforce the least-privilege policy to avoid unrestricted, unauthorized, or unnecessary access.
  4. Properly define roles: When creating a role, make sure that it can be used by a group of people needing the same access. Having unique roles suitable to only one person can cause “role explosion,” or too many roles to manage. Then choose a role owner, preferably the person with the most knowledge of that role or the most senior person in that department. Test and verify the roles to make sure the permissions work and that the parameters are as intended.
  5. Use a hybrid role-mining technique: To maintain a zero-trust security model, combine a top-down and bottom-up approach when matching users to roles and determining the permissions required.
  6. Document policies. Even if you are using an RBAC tool and your IT team or managed security service provider (MSSP) has things well in hand, document your policies to avoid potential issues in the future.

Steps for Implementing RBAC

Remember that the extent of the efficiency, security, and savings you realize will depend mostly on using best practices when implementing RBAC. Here are the steps to follow:

  1. Decide what data and resources need controlled access.
  2. Analyze your workforce and their respective functions and responsibilities to define roles.
  3. Match the roles to the access requirements.
  4. Train staff in the principles and security measures for RBAC.
  5. Audit roles and permissions to determine needed modifications.

Be adaptable and willing to continually evaluate so that you can roll out your RBAC strategy successfully.

How Fortinet Can Help?

Fortinet helps organizations protect their data and users with access control technologies and devices, and they do this in a number of ways: 

  1. The FortiGate VPN solution allows businesses to keep users safe from cyberattacks and data breaches. It works to secure online communications between external resources and internal devices or networks.
  2. Fortinet also offers IAM solutions. FortiAuthenticator protects corporate resources from unauthorized access, providing centralized authentication services, such as certificate management, single sign-on (SSO) services, and guest access management for the Fortinet Security Fabric. 
  3. FortiToken adds additional user confirmation by applying a second layer to the authentication process. The FortiToken Cloud offers multi-factor authentication (MFA) with an intuitive dashboard as a service. 

Fortinet tools, products, and resources can help you streamline user access and provide adaptive security for your organization’s digital and physical assets.

FAQs

What is RBAC in security?

Role-based access control (RBAC), or role-based security, is a method used to assign permissions and grant access based on a user’s role within an organization.

What are some examples of RBAC?

As a person’s job changes, so does their role, and so does their access. In this way, no one retains access to data, accounts, or systems no longer required by their role, keeping vulnerabilities to a minimum. 

Examples to illustrate this are the varying data access levels granted to different roles in a company, such as:

  1. Client lists and platforms like Google Analytics to marketers
  2. Financial data and tools such as QuickBooks to accountants
  3. Personnel data and banking information to HR personnel
  4. Access to servers that monitor data, connected devices, and employees' machines to IT staff

When implementing RBAC, what are some key considerations?

Decide what data and resources need controlled access, analyze your workforce and their respective functions and responsibilities to define roles, match the roles to the access requirements, train staff in the principles and security measures for RBAC, and regularly audit roles and permissions to determine needed modifications.

What are the advantages of RBAC?

RBAC is usually simple to configure and execute and requires less processing power. It increases security, efficiency, compliance, and visibility in an organization.