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What Is Role-Based Access Control? [RBAC vs. ABAC vs. ACL]

Posted on Tuesday September 6, 2022

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Figuring out which type of access control you should use can be tricky but that’s where we come in. We walk you through RBAC, ABAC, and ACL to help you decide.

What Is Meant by Role-Based Access Control?

Role-based access control limits an employee’s access to certain programs or data on the network based on their role within the organization. This helps to control who has access to sensitive information while also keeping that information secure.

In the real world, businesses control access to restricted areas for security purposes. The restricted areas often contain valuable products or information that is crucial and sensitive to their operations.

In the same vein, role-based access control restricts digital access to a hierarchy of information by assigning permissions to end users based on their roles within the organization. While it allows employees to get the resources required to do their jobs, it also reduces the risk of unauthorized access to information.

However, RBAC involves more than simply restricting access to data. This access control mechanism also changes the way users are allowed to interact with data. For instance, it can constrain whether a user can delete data or execute certain commands.

This is often accomplished through applying read/write access restrictions to certain resources. RBAC also helps organizations to maintain visibility and control over how to access their information.

RBAC deals in roles, and a role is simply a collection of permissions. A role definition lists the range of actions that can be performed by members of that role. Most of its permissions can be classified into the following categories: read, create, update, delete, and export.

Most software applications from popular vendors come with several built-in roles.

The National Institute of Science and Technology began formalizing what is currently RBAC in 1992 but it wasn’t until 2004 that it was officially adopted as an industry standard.

What Are Examples of RBAC?

Role-based access control ensures that user access provisioning is contingent on the common responsibilities and needs of a group, such as the sales department. Consequently, each role is provided with a given set of permissions. However, roles aren’t mutually exclusive, so a user can belong to one or more roles.

As a result, RBAC allows you to designate a user with various roles within the application. These roles will differ based on the type of application. For example, Microsoft Azure allows you to implement the following RBAC roles:

  • User access administrator: Allows you to manage users’ access to Azure resources.
  • Reader: This allows the user to view all resources in the system (except secrets) but without any ability to make any changes.
  • Owner: This role grants full access to create and manage resources of all types, in addition to the ability to assign roles.
  • Contributor: Same as the Owner role above but doesn’t have the ability to assign roles.

With RBAC, membership is based on business roles within an organization. Therefore, it impacts a group of users who share some common characteristics, ultimately controlling their access to digital resources like networks, files, and data as illustrated by this table below:

Role Email CRM Customer DB Employee Info Corporate Network
User Yes No No No No
Sales Consultant Yes Yes Yes No No
Developer Yes No No No Yes
IT Systems Admin Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
HR Yes No NO Yes Yes

Why Is RBAC Important?

Role-based access control is a key aspect of data protection. Data security requires information systems to provide some form of access (authorization) control to protect the sensitivity of proprietary data or personally identifiable information.

Before the advent of RBAC, large networks faced a lot of complexity in security administration. It was hitherto both error prone and costly, especially when system administrators had to design access control lists individually for each user.

However, RBAC allows organizations to adopt a more manageable process. It does this by providing fine-grained control to resources rather than assigning permissions to individual users.

Because of its convenience and relative ease of administration, role-based security has now emerged as the primary model for advanced access control. As a result, role-based access control is typically incorporated into the product line of most technology vendors.

Role-based access control dispenses permissions based on the group(s) an individual belongs to. Users no longer possess individual or unique access rights. Instead, they are given privileges in conformity to the permissions assigned to their job function or specific role(s).

Hence, the overriding benefit of RBAC is its straightforwardness and simplicity: equipping employees to do their jobs by providing them with only the information they need in their respective roles.

What Are the Three Basic Requirements for Role-Based Access Control?

For access control to be successfully implemented, it must fulfill three basic components:

  1. Identification: As its name suggests, identification requires a user to present some data or information to confirm that they are who they claim to be. Presenting a password is the most common identification mechanism; however, many organizations are moving toward multi-factor authentication. Biometric means are also used for identification, whereby the individual provides a physical attribute such as fingerprints or iris scan to evaluate their identity.
  2. Authentication: Authentication often appears to be identical with identification but there’s a slight but significant difference. While identification is used to uniquely identify a user of an application or system, authentication is the process or ability to prove that the user or application is genuinely who they say they are. For example, a person presents a user ID in the form of a username/password combination in order to log in to a web application. In this instance, the system uses the user ID to identify the individual. However, at the time of login, the system authenticates the users by checking whether the username and password supplied are correct. While identification is presenting your username and password credentials to a system, authentication is the act of making sure you are you.
  3. Authorization and role assignment: This encapsulates most of what constitutes access control. It involves granting permissions, rights, and privileges to authenticated users to perform certain functions and assume certain roles within the system. Authorization determines and evaluates the resources a user can access. But first, these users are assigned roles based on their respective task descriptions. Subsequently, they are only allowed to execute transactions based on the group role they belong to. While authentication is at least partially visible to the user, authorization isn’t visible or changeable by the user.

These three elements are the foundational components of information security. They allow an organization to comprehensively and consistently verify every user, who they are, what they have access to, and what they can do.

RBAC and Differences with Other Control Authorization Models

One of the challenges of successfully operating information systems is how to both provide and restrict access to users, especially to information of varying levels of sensitivity and importance. Although RBAC is the most popular, there are other access control systems and techniques such as the following:

Mandatory Access Control

This access control strategy provides the most restrictive protection. With MAC, a central authority is responsible for regulating access rights through multiple levels of security.

MAC affects security at the most fundamental levels of the system because its authorization rules are enforced by the operating system kernel.

Ordinary users don’t have the ability to override a MAC policy. Moreover, MAC also restricts the owner’s ability to grant access to anyone or anything in the system. As a result, MAC creates strong security around critical data. Hence, it is often used in government and military institutions’ classification systems.

Access Control Lists

As its name implies, an ACL is a list containing a specific set of rules that either grant or deny access to certain digital resources or environments. It acts as a guest list, and it can be used to filter traffic or access resources in computer security settings.

It contains an entry for each user which is correspondingly linked to the security attributes of each object.


ACL has the upper hand in terms of better implementation at the user level with low-level data. However, RBAC has an overseeing administrator and provides a superior security control mechanism. Moreover, it serves a broad, company-wide security control.

While ACL has the ability to grant write access to a file, it is incapable of determining how the file might be changed by a user. However, ACL is capable of denying or granting access in two broad categories:

  • Networking: ACL can be applied to network routers and switches to determine the nature of traffic and activities allowed through a network.
  • Filesystems: ACLs are used to filter and manage access to files and directories. It does this by instructing the operating system as to which users are permitted to access system resources and the privileges they are allowed. 

Discretionary Access Control

Unlike MAC, this control system puts more power back into the hands of the owner. Even though a system administrator creates a hierarchy of files with a range of permissions attached to them, the owner still gets to determine who can access those resources.

Hence, DAC provides individuals with complete control over their own resources, which makes it less restrictive than other access control systems.

This is done by allowing the individual who owns the protected system (often the administrator) to define an access control list on a specific resource. This resource could be a registry key, folder, file operating system object, or database table.

This ACL contains access control entries, which do two things:

  1. Defines each user that has access to the resource.
  2. Define what the user’s privileges are for that resource. 

A common example of DAC is the Windows OS file system.


While RBAC is based on group permissions, DAC is based on user or personal permissions. RBAC is centrally administered, but with DAC, the owner has to administer each resource individually. Hence, DAC definitions are attached to the data resource. Although this downside with DAC is that it’s less secure, it does provide more flexibility.

Attribute-Based Access Control

While RBAC defines permissions based on roles, ABAC defines them based on attributes. ABAC uses a combination of attributes to match users with the resources they require to accomplish a task or do their jobs.

These attributes can consist of the following:

  • Environmental factors such as the location of access, time of day, and so on.
  • User information like job title, security clearance, and nationality.
  • Resource properties such as file type, owner, and date of creation. 


ABAC’s attributes provides an extra layer of contextual rules to achieve a more fine-grained control. It is also a more relationship-based control compared to RBAC, which relies on predefined roles. It is also easy to set up. However, ABAC’s increased granularity comes with downsides as it introduces more complexity to the system.

What Are the Benefits of RBAC?

Different users in distributed systems should not be allowed to have the same level of access. This is especially so in large organizations that need to grant access to a significant number of employees based on their roles and responsibilities.

However, these employees need to have the minimum features and functionality required to perform their respective tasks. To accomplish this, role based-access control enforces the level of least privilege across a distributed system.

The least privilege rule ensures a user only has access to what they need to execute the actions required for their job.

As a design principle, least privilege is important because it helps protect data while reducing the vulnerability of the system to cyber risks like escalation of privilege attacks. Moreover, the consistency it helps provide through a group, instead of individual-based roles allows for better system stability and security.

Here are other benefits of role-based access control:

  • Increase compliance: Government agencies around the world are increasingly adopting more and more stringent regulatory guidelines on privacy laws and data security. Role-based access control makes it much easier to enforce these requirements, especially across industries.
  • Improve security: In addition to providing compliance, RBAC improves the overall security of a system with regard to confidentiality, privacy, and managing access to critical data and proprietary information. It also reduces a system’s surface of attack by making it difficult for hackers to find privileged credentials.
  • Minimizing risk: RBAC systems control who can view sensitive information or run critical tasks in an organization. Therefore, they help to minimize business risk.
  • Reduces operational overhead: Among other things, RBAC reduces the cost of user provisioning.
  • Separation of duties: Along with least privilege, separation of duties reduces abuse and the prevalence of “insider threat” attacks.
  • Flexibility: It empowers organizations with multiple roles with the flexibility to adjust permissions to suit evolving business needs.
  • Improved audit reporting: Improved audit reporting means reduced audit costs. 

Best Practices and Tips for Implementing RBAC

To reap the benefits of RBAC, organizations need to know how to adequately implement it. However, this can be challenging since implementing it across the entire company is often a complex endeavor. These are a few tips and best practices to adhere to when implementing RBAC:

Start with a Sensible Approach

You need to approach RBAC with the mindset of an ongoing process, not a project with a fixed, terminal date. This is because an extensive, far-reaching RBAC solution may take months or even years to finish. Likewise, don’t expect to achieve 100% total coverage of all access control.

Start With Your Needs

This seems rather self-evident, but an organization needs to be clear-minded about its most pressing access control needs, especially with regard to regulatory and audit requirements. This will place them in the best position to grasp what job functions require various technologies, support frameworks, and data access hierarchies.

Start with the Simple and Familiar

Initially, the task of implementing RBAC may look overwhelming. The best antidote to this is to start with the more familiar roles in the organization. Like peeling an onion, each successive layer tackled will reveal vital needs to be addressed.

A corollary to this is to start small. This prevents you from getting dispirited by attempting the herculean task of assigning roles across the organization in one swoop.

Roll Out in Incremental Stages

A piecemeal approach not only reduces the workload but also minimizes disruption to the business. This also allows you to adapt and iterate your approach as you continuously gather feedback from stakeholders.

Role-Based Access Control with Digital Guardian Secure Collaboration.

Managing access, especially in sprawling modern IT environments presents new challenges for organizations. But Digital Guardian Secure Collaboration makes it seamlessly easy to control user privileges, especially by restricting access to confidential documents.

This convenience increases your likelihood of achieving compliance, especially in highly regulated industries. The product also helps you protect sensitive files from unauthorized access by providing you with granular control over your data, no matter where it travels.

To learn more about securing documents and data, read our e-book.

Tags:  Secure Collaboration

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