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August 14, 2023

The Benefits and Challenges of Implementing Attribute-based Access Control

Imagine you’ve been charged with preparing the seating arrangements for an upcoming company speaker event. The venue has three sections that you plan to designate for VIPs, premium ticket holders, and a general audience.

A technique like role-based access control makes this task a breeze. You categorize each group based on its role and give its members specific rights to a set area:

  • VIPs are in the first several rows.
  • Premium ticket holders have the next 20 rows.
  • General audience members have the back 30 rows.

It isn’t long before you realize you have a problem. For instance, what if there are VIPs who only want an end seat? Or how about the premium ticket holders with special requirements, such as wheelchair accessibility?

Using a method like attribute based access control, you can define various guest characteristics to ensure everyone gets the seat they desire. For example, you can ask the system to:

  • Identify which guests need special assistance.
  • Flag key stakeholders who should be given front-row seats.
  • Leave several seats available for last-minute changes.

Attribute based access control implementation is, of course, more complex than creating the perfect seating chart. But the two tasks are alike in their granularity, flexibility, personalization, efficiency, and user satisfaction. And they both deliver the desired result: the right person has the right access to the right seat.

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A Brief Overview of ABAC Authorization

The simplest way to define ABAC is that it permits access to users based on who they are rather than what they do. It offers a more straightforward control structure because permissions can be assigned on the basis of a user’s type, location, department, etc. ABAC’s core components include:

  1. Attributes or characteristics
  2. Policies
  3. Decision-making

The primary goal of ABAC authorization is to protect data and other resources from unauthorized users and actions.

When people talk about an attribute based access control model, they’re referring to an authorization method that sets and enforces Policy Decision Points (PDP), Policy Enforcement Points (PEP), and Policy Information Points (PIP). Model attributes in a user’s profile can include things like ID, group memberships, job roles, department, and security clearance.

An ABAC policy includes elements like subjects, objects, actions, and conditions based on certain attributes. If an access requestor is a CPA, for example, you might allow read-write access to the organization’s financial data. In a medical setting, you could allow patient record access to healthcare professionals with a “doctor” role whose specialty matches the patient’s condition or diagnosis.

The ABAC authorization process enforces various ABAC policies, such as at the application, API, or network level.

Attribute Based Security: A More Robust Security Model

Because ABAC uses multiple pieces of information about a user to control access, it’s generally considered to be a more secure access model. It can enforce more precise and context-aware policies, and attributes can be used to assess distinct risks associated with a single request. For instance, if the attribute “user location” is included in the policy, a login attempt from an unfamiliar location could indicate a high risk. By incorporating risk-based attributes in the security model, the system can adapt to fluid threats and help prevent security breaches.

Attributes also allow ABAC to make access control decisions “on the fly.” Let’s say an employee suddenly leaves the company or you need to immediately revoke their privileges due to security concerns. ABAC can automatically update access decisions and immediately bar that employee from further access.

Benefits and Challenges of Implementing ABAC

Implementing ABAC comes with significant challenges. However, its many benefits can far outweigh these access control hurdles, making it a highly effective model. Let’s look at the top three challenges of implementing ABAC and the method’s benefits that help overcome them.

1. Complex attribute management

ABAC relies on countless attributes to make access control decisions, making the process of applying consistent and accurate attribute data across the system more complicated than other models like RBAC. Dynamic, real-time access control helps by making it possible to adjust access decisions based on real-time attribute changes, reducing the need for manual attribute updates.

2. Policy complexity and scalability

As the number of attributes and policies goes up, organizations can find themselves overwhelmed. The more policies you write, the more time-consuming it becomes to maintain and manage them. And the more policies you create, the higher the risk of errors. Some companies find scaling ABAC to handle more users and access rules can also be challenging. Fine-grained access control and flexibility can help solve this challenge and make the process less complex by allowing them to create precise policies that target specific attributes.

3. Existing system integration

Most ABAC implementations involve integration with existing access control models like RBAC or discretionary access control (DAC). For some businesses, this can present significant difficulties. Though getting started takes a little effort, once deployed, ABAC is relatively simple to scale and integrate.

  • Each component is assigned an attribute.
  • A central policy is created to determine what an attribute can do based on various conditions.
  • All attributes are defined.
  • User permissions are checked once all attributes and rules are set.
  • Authorization policies are created to control access.

If you’re still on the fence about whether RBAC or ABAC is the best access control method for your business, let’s recap how ABAC excels in keeping your organization agile and secure.

1. Granular yet flexible policies. Without a doubt, ABAC’s flexibility is its most significant benefit. As long as set attributes and conditions are considered in the policy-making process, it allows a wide range of users to access numerous resources without admins needing to define specific relationships between them. For example, when a new employee comes on board, they can be assigned a set of subject attributes: “Julie Smith is a consultant for the financial securities department.” When financial data objects are created, they’re assigned attributes (e.g., folders with portfolios, securities research, and client communications). An access control rule can then be easily set: “All financial consultants in the financial securities department can view and share securities research and client portfolios and communications. Admins can quickly modify these attributes and rules to fit current or pressing needs without manually changing each subject-object relationship.

2. New user onboarding. Provided they’re assigned the necessary attributes to access data, ABAC allows you to create policies that permit new employees to quickly access the resources they need to perform their job. There’s no need to modify existing rules or data object attributes.

3. Top-level security and privacy. ABAC allows admins to implement intelligent access restrictions that account for context, such as specific users, resources, and processes. For instance, an RBAC model grants your company’s HR team total access to sensitive employee information like payroll data, health and medical records, and performance reviews. With ABAC, you can restrict access to staff with certain positions or those in relevant branch offices.

Most experts agree that the future of access control is ABAC, as traditional methods like RBAC don’t meet today’s challenges of safely sharing confidential information and meeting regulatory data requirements. The Velotix platform is designed to ensure the right person has the right access at the right time.

By transitioning from RBAC to ABAC, your organization can design controls that are much more granular, including type of content, security clearance, project, location, device, network, and so on. Best of all, once it’s written, a single access control policy can be extended across multiple systems and thousands of devices. In short, it offers businesses that want deep, specific access control capabilities everything they need to ensure privacy and security compliance while reducing administrative overhead and maximizing operational efficiency.