Access Control

Introduction to Policy-Based Access Controls (v2)

Author:

Abstract

The natural evolution of access controls has caused many organizations to adopt access management paradigms that assign and revoke access based on structured and highly reproducible rules.    One such paradigm is known as Policy-Based Access Control (PBAC), which is most differentiated by two key characteristics:  

1. Where other access control paradigms often optimize for ease of granting user access to all relevant resources, PBAC optimizes for ease of extending resource access to all applicable users.    
2. PBAC facilitates the evaluation of context (time of day, location, etc.) in granting access to a protected resource.  Context is used to express who may access a resource and the conditions under which that access is permissible.  

Shifting the focus of access controls from the user to the resource allows PBAC systems to be particularly resilient against shifts in organizational structure or regulatory obligations.  The inclusion of context (such as an authorized user’s location or device) allows for additional security controls to be expressed and extended within resource permissions themselves, ensuring that all facets of access control are contained and auditable within a single structure.  

Because PBAC accommodates a very precise expression of who may access a resource and under which circumstances, it lends itself to the automation of access provisioning and deprovisioning in a way that provides ease of management as well as increased security and adaptability.

Keywords: Identity, Architecture, Access Control, Digital Identity, Risk, Policies, Automation, PBAC

How to Cite: McKee, M. K. (2021) “Introduction to Policy-Based Access Controls (v2)”, IDPro Body of Knowledge. 1(8). doi: https://doi.org/10.55621/idpro.61

Introduction to Policy-Based Access Controls (v2)

Introduction to Policy-Based Access Controls (v2)

By Mary McKee

© 2022 IDPro, Mary McKee

For a primer on access controls, please see André Koot’s Introduction to Access Control.

To comment on this article, please visit our GitHub repository and submit an issue.

Introduction
To effectively secure resources, access control systems must be designed to adapt to rapid shifts in technology, regulatory obligations, and organizational structure. As organizations embrace more sophisticated technology and seek protection from more sophisticated threats, access management strategies are evolving to address modern concerns.

Most early access management systems utilize what we now refer to as Discretionary Access Control (DAC).  With DAC systems (such as access control lists), administrators manually assign privileges to users according to their understanding of need, appropriate use, and organizational rules.  As DAC systems grow in users, resources, administrators, and/or age, their reliance on ad hoc management leads to inconsistencies in application and understanding of access.  As inappropriate access often goes unnoticed and insufficient access creates visible business challenges, DAC administrators are increasingly incentivized to be liberal with authorizations and conservative with access cleanup.  As a result, DAC is often too costly, too inconsistent, and too inflexible for modern needs.

Contemporary access control systems aim to promote consistency and efficiency by granting access to resources through structured rules.  Perhaps the best-known model for abstracting access control so that permissions are based on rules is known as Role-Based Access Control (RBAC).  Through RBAC, permissions are associated with “roles” which are assigned to users.  This model is effective in ensuring that users with the same responsibilities are consistently granted the same permissions and encourages governance by requiring that roles and their associated permissions be defined before they can be used.  Further, RBAC is suitable for use in federated authorization scenarios where resource permissions depend on the information provided by an external user authority. While these are improvements over DAC, RBAC permissions are not resilient against shifts in responsibility structure within an organization and are limited in how permissions can be defined.  These drawbacks, covered later in this article, make it difficult for RBAC systems to ensure that users do not have more access than they need to perform intended business functions (also known as the principle of least privilege1).

Policy-Based Access Control (PBAC) is a more robust paradigm for managing permissions through structured rules in federated or non-federated contexts. 

While the RBAC model intentionally bundles permissions, PBAC builds on a concept known as Attribute-based Access Control (ABAC) to automate fine-grained, decoupled permissions. Leveraging ABAC’s approach of calculating permissions based on user information such as a job code or employment status, PBAC provides increased precision by supporting appropriate conditions (or context) for access.

Terminology

PBAC vs. RBAC: A Comparison

To better understand PBAC structures, it may be helpful to examine how they differ from RBAC.

While the primary focus of RBAC permissions is the user, the primary focus for PBAC permissions is the resource.

RBAC asks, “what types of users do I have, and what may they do in my environment?”.  Controls are constructed with subjects (who is getting access), permissions (what is being accessed or used), and roles (what permissions can be assigned to a subject)2.  This looks like:

Subject Role Permission
Ada as Editor may Modify Documents

PBAC asks, “what types of resources do I have, and who/how may they be used or managed?”.  Controls are constructed with subjects (who is getting access), actions (what behavior is being discussed), objects (what resource is being accessed or used), and context (environmental or other parameters defining acceptable access)3.  This looks like: 

Object Action Subject Context
Documents may be Modified by  Those with “Editor” job code On managed devices

Both examples abstract subjects to ensure that all editors are granted the necessary permission.  In the RBAC example, Ada acquires the permission because she has been assigned to the “Editor” role through a manual or automated process.  In the PBAC example, Ada acquires the permission because the subject definition matches her employee record, though the subject definition could also be a manual process, such as the assignment of a group membership.

To make the most apples-to-apples comparison, imagine that an RBAC system adds Ada to an “Editor” role and a PBAC system adds her to an “Editor” group membership that is referenced in access policies.  Though these actions may seem nearly equivalent, the PBAC architecture offers the following advantages: the flexibility to support different situations (context), the ability to discretely handle changes without impacting other permissions (modularity), and the capacity to handle real-time permission evaluation (symmetry). Each of these factors promotes an organizationally consistent and defensible approach to access control, as illustrated by the following examples:

Context 

Ada’s employer may be subject to legal or compliance concerns that affect how resources may be accessed.  For example, when national security regulation (such as export controls) restricts access from certain types of devices, relevant PBAC policies can be amended to include this stipulation.

If the company requires some form of training before resources can be accessed, this too can be articulated as context.  A “certification status” attribute can be maintained for Ada based on records referenced from within or outside the authorizing organization. Ada’s permissions can require that this status is current at the time of access.  Instead of laborious audit processes or managing infrastructure to revoke and reassign permissions as compliance states change, Ada’s access is automatically blocked when she is not compliant with training and automatically restored when she re-certifies her training.  Similarly, if Ada must consent to terms and conditions for the access she has been granted, PBAC context can ensure that this has occurred in advance of any interaction with the resource.

For security reasons, Ada may be expected to only access company resources from safe-listed network spaces or with multi-factor authentication requirements that are more stringent than those of users with lesser permissions.  By codifying and enforcing these requirements within the scope of the permission, Ada’s employer can easily reference, manage, and adapt all access requirements in a single place.

Modularity

Because permissions granted by PBAC policies are not inherently interconnected as they are with RBAC, they are highly modular and easier to manage with confidence.  When an organization needs to add, remove, or modify controls on a resource, policies for that resource can be adapted exactly as needed without impact on other resources.

When permissions are bundled together, as in RBAC, accommodating new business scenarios requires a broad analysis of existing permission groupings.  Often, administrators are forced to choose between a “close enough” access bundle that carries unneeded permissions with it, or contributing to a proliferation of bundles that becomes increasingly difficult to understand and maintain.

For example, if senior leadership at Ada’s company selected her to edit sensitive briefings for their investors, it is likely that she would need access atypical for editors.  An RBAC system admin charged with granting this access is likely to consider solutions such as:

Organizations with evolving access needs will generally not find it practical to redesign RBAC roles each time an access need is not represented by an existing role. The alternatives – over-privileging or over-complicating – promote an increasingly lackadaisical approach to access management within the organization.

Symmetry

When there is a divergence between criteria for granting access and criteria for revoking access in a system, it is common for the system to accumulate permissions that were at one time appropriate but would not be allowed under current policy. PBAC systems are not susceptible to this permission spread because access control decisions are made in real time based on current attributes and context.

Since PBAC is an extension of ABAC, PBAC controls easily accommodate fully or partially automated access based on attributes.  An institution may wish to automatically grant access to any current employee of a company, or any employee who works at Office X, or any employee who works at Office Y and is not currently on personal leave.  

Automating how access is assigned simplifies the tasks of automating continuous monitoring of permission validity and revoking permissions that are no longer allowable under current rules.  This creates symmetry between provisioning and deprovisioning of access, minimizing system maintenance and remnant permissions.

PBAC is Practical

PBAC scales well because it is adaptable, and this adaptability can make it a practical option for organizations of any size. Time saved with streamlined RBAC roles can be quickly lost if the business impact of modifying a role (or its many associated permissions) is unclear.  This can disincentivize active and responsible management of access controls and hamper growth in an organization of any size.

To illustrate how PBAC can be preferable even in a small organization, consider the following scenario:

JE Plumbing starts as a small business comprised of five plumbers and an owner who handles all administration. 

Thanks to an excellent reputation and growing customer base, the owner is able to expand the staff to twenty plumbers who are supported by a business manager, three sales representatives, and two finance specialists.

Over time, JE Plumbing sees an opportunity to expand the company’s coverage area and offerings.  To accomplish this, they set up two new locations overseen by two new business managers (one of whom was an internal promotion from a finance specialist position).  They grow their residential plumber staff to seventy-five and hire twenty-five commercial plumbers.   Finance and sales positions are replicated across the two new offices, growing that team from two to six.  A dedicated marketing specialist is hired to cover all three sites.

An RBAC approach to this problem might start with two roles: an admin role for the owner and a technician role for her staff.  As the company grows, a business manager might be trusted with the admin role, but new roles would need to be created for the sales and finance specialists.  After doubling from two to four roles, the role count doubles again as the company splits the technician role into commercial technician and residential technician, splits the sales and marketing role into distinct roles, formalizes roles for business managers and customer service, and retains the original admin and finance roles.

Though this example looks at JE Plumbing’s development at three points in time, it is unlikely that the company would implement such broad shifts overnight.  To preserve security through incremental shifts in responsibility, a small business making strategic organizational adjustments with limited working capital should consider the absence of a role not included in this exercise: that of a full-time IT professional available to perpetually re-engineer access management structures and adapt each system utilizing them.

By contrast, a PBAC approach would start by looking at what resources JE Plumbing needs to secure: work orders, customer information, invoices, inventory, employee personal and licensing information, payroll data, and expense reports.  Though responsibility for these functions changes as the company adds staff, the functions themselves remain the same.  If the company expanded the nature of their business in addition to the scale, permissions could easily be added to support the new functions without interfering with existing functions.

This simple shift from expressing access controls from user-focused to resource-focused allows for access control complexity to grow linearly rather than exponentially.  As a result, JE Plumbing can adapt permissions in step with organizational shifts without managing a ballooning number of roles. 

In addition to being more sustainable, PBAC also creates opportunities for the company to reduce risk by setting the context for access. For example:

Although organizations with modest access management needs may initially choose to forgo PBAC features such as context limitations on access policies, committing early to PBAC architecture for access controls allows for an organic and natural maturation of access management rules over time - whether it be to accommodate more users, more resources, and/or a more sophisticated security or risk management posture.

When RBAC is Preferable

This article has primarily compared policy-based access controls to role-based access controls due to the prominence of RBAC as an access control strategy.

Some IAM professionals may be interested in implementing PBAC controls but must work with systems that can only support RBAC. In these cases, it is sometimes advantageous to rethink institutional roles in terms of resources or specific work functions rather than permission bundles that will be difficult to adapt over time. As long as an RBAC system accommodates multiple roles for a user, it should be possible to achieve some advantages of PBAC (like modularity) within that system.

When choosing between RBAC and PBAC, it may be helpful to consider that PBAC can be constructed to behave like RBAC more reliably than the reverse. For example, an organization that prefers to think in terms of “roles” may choose to represent group memberships as such, assigning those groups to many resource permissions to the same end effect - one action results in the application of a defined set of permissions. Conversely, options for applying a notion of context to RBAC permissions are often limited.

While the increased flexibility and scalability of PBAC makes it a strong choice for protecting sensitive resources, it may be less approachable for casual users of an access management system. Systems with straightforward and fairly static access controls and especially those that delegate access management to end users rather than administrators (such as those where content creators can authorize collaborators) may find that the intuitiveness of a system like RBAC is more advantageous than the flexibility of PBAC.

Implementing PBAC

The key to building a successful access control environment is accommodating changing business requirements. To promote ease and precision of access management, the system should be neither too rigid nor too abstract.

To achieve this balance in a PBAC implementation, consider the following guiding principles:

Build Reusable Components

Managing abstraction in PBAC means isolating parts of your policies that may be applicable to other policies.  The most obvious place where this applies is with user segmentation. 

For example, if you are constructing a policy to say that:

Object Action Subject Context
User profiles may be Updated by  Business managers For full-time employees

“Business managers” and “full-time employees” are very likely to be used again in other policies.  Thus, creating a definition for these segments that can be used by one or more policies is wise.

The ideal way to avoid these definitions becoming too granular and rigid is through access management system implementations that allow for set logic - particularly intersections (membership in set A AND set B), unions (membership in set A OR set B), and complements (membership in set A, BUT NOT set B).  

To expand on the previous example, if the policy above requires the following update:

Object Action Subject Context
User profiles may be Updated by  Business managers
at the Detroit office
For full-time employees
at the Detroit office

The best way to solve this problem is usually4 to keep definitions of “business managers” and “full-time employees” and add a third: “Detroit office.”  The “Detroit office” definition can then be used to update the subject of your policy (granting access to the intersection of “business managers” and “Detroit office”) as well as a context variable (scoping that access to the intersection of “full-time employees” and “Detroit office”).

This approach makes it possible to achieve the same ease of assigning a permission to a group of individuals as you might in RBAC, with the benefits of avoiding interdependence between permissions, being able to cleanly segment objects as well as subjects, and supporting specificity through permission contexts (such as user groups, device identifiers, IP address ranges, or document classifications).

Facilitate Governance and Audit

A good access control system will allow auditors and business owners engaged in access governance to understand existing precedents in organizational access controls, analyze how they may need to be extended or modified, and ascertain the business impact of proposed changes.  

When designing a PBAC system, it is important to make sure that subjects, actions, objects, and contexts are stored in a way that makes it straightforward to report on access from any of these perspectives.  Business owners and auditors should have easy access to reports that answer questions about access users have, users able to access resources of interest, and allowable contexts for any actions defined for a resource.

The expressiveness of PBAC permissions makes it realistic to define all access considerations within policies.  This flexibility is advantageous over implementing additional security measures (such as IP restrictions) outside of an organizational access control system. It allows for a single source of truth about circumstances under which access is allowed.  

Being able to report on permissions in this way facilitates the examination of current rules for access to a resource.  Good reporting may also include users who currently meet these criteria.  Though PBAC is often used in federated contexts where identity (and other contextual) information for all potential users is not available to the resource administrator, such user reports can be helpful for spot-checking, especially in the context of a proposed change.  Reports on who would gain or lose access under a proposed policy support business owners and auditors in refining controls to best facilitate organizational needs and security.

Embrace States over Events

Business processes are often developed with flowcharts, which are focused on events. This often leads to access management systems that are implemented on events that mimic flowcharts, such as assigning access when a new employee is hired.

Being based on observable attributes, PBAC policies tend to be more focused son states, such as an employee’s current position. This offers several advantages:

To workshop access rules that can generate robust PBAC policies, consider dropping the flowchart arrows and working only with circles representing conditions.  Arranging these circles as a Venn or Euler5 diagram allows for a discussion of acceptable conditions for access that will result in cleaner and more robust policies.

Event-based Permission Design State-based Permission Design

Looks like:
Flowcharts

Results in: Rigid and sequential workflows, point-in-time validation, complicated deprovisioning logic.


Looks like:
Overlapping circles

Results in: Flexible and parallel workflows, continuous validation, harmony between provisioning and deprovisioning.

Support Separation of Concerns

More advanced guidance around PBAC may include references to standards such as OASIS’ eXtensible Access Control Markup Language (XACML)6. Such standards can be particularly useful when it is desirable to maintain separation between components of a PBAC system, such as federated systems or when policies are based on sensitive data.

Consider the example of a scientific instrument subject to federal law requiring all users to be either a citizen or legal permanent resident of their country, and additionally with a clean background check performed within the last three years. To enforce this policy without sharing citizenship, immigration status, and background check results to the instrument. By maintaining separation between policy definition, policy evaluation, and policy enforcement, the managing organization can meet its legal obligations without propagating sensitive user data across the resources it oversees (or, in federated contexts, across organizational boundaries).

Conclusion

Access control systems promote and implement an organization’s access control strategy as changes occur in users, personnel, responsibilities, organizational structure, and legal obligations.  Most failures with access management are due to a system implementation that is too manual to scale or too brittle to adapt to changing business needs without costly and time-consuming re-architecture efforts.

While it is common to try to optimize access control systems for efficiency in granting access, a truer measure of a robust access control system is how reliably it can revoke access.  Policy-based access controls support the security principle of least privilege by offering logical symmetry between access assignment and revocation.  Defining policy for access allows access to be dynamically evaluated for validity, and automatically revoked or reported as soon as that access becomes invalid under current policy.

Developing access controls from a resource-first perspective and adding a notion of context to these controls allows PBAC systems to maximize resource security over convenience of access assignment.  While these systems can initially be more complex than other approaches, the atomic nature of policies and their relative resilience against buildup of legacy permissions makes for a system that is much more maintainable over time as compared to more limited rule-based access management systems like RBAC.


Author Bio

Mary McKee works as Deputy Chief Information Security Officer and Senior Director of Identity Management and Security Services at Duke University, where she studied Computer Science as an undergraduate and was subsequently hired as a web application developer. Her interest in abstraction and interoperability brought her to Identity and Access Management and subsequently, Information Security.

Acknowledgments

The author would like to thank André Koot and Andrew Hindle for their thoughtful responses to earlier versions of this article, and Heather Flanagan, Christienna Fryar, Dave Wible, and Mary Ellen Wible for their feedback and support with its development.

Change Log

Date Change
2022-06-03 V2 published; Clarified scope as an introductory article; replaced section on static access controls; removed section on privacy
2021-04-19 V1 published

  1. “Least Privilege,” https://us-cert.cisa.gov/bsi/articles/knowledge/principles/least-privilege (accessed February 10, 2020)↩︎

  2. “Role-based access control,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Role-based_access_control (accessed February 10, 2020)↩︎

  3. “Attribute-based access control,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attribute-based_access_control (accessed February 10, 2020)↩︎

  4. The examples in this section are meant to illustrate optimizing for set math capability within a context where both the identity provider (or user attribute store) and the service provider (or resource to be protected) exist within a common environment, and does not extend to federated contexts where a service provider may be interacting with one or more externally controlled identity providers. It is, however, worth noting that PBAC (/ABAC/CBAC) can easily accommodate these externalities.↩︎

  5. “Euler diagram,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Euler_diagram, (accessed February 25, 2020)↩︎

  6. “eXtensible Access Control Markup Language (XACML) Version 3.0 Plus Errata 01,” https://docs.oasis-open.org/xacml/3.0/errata01/os/xacml-3.0-core-spec-errata01-os-complete.pdf (accessed May 20, 2022)↩︎