What is Role-Based Access Control (RBAC)? Examples, Benefits, and More

Role-based access control (RBAC), also known as role-based security, is an access control method that assigns permissions to end-users based on their role within your organization. RBAC provides fine-grained control, offering a simple, manageable approach to access management that is less error-prone than individually assigning permissions. 

This can reduce cybersecurity risk, protect sensitive data, and ensures that employees can only access information and perform actions they need to do their jobs. This is known as the principle of least privilege.

Because of this, RBAC is popular in large organizations that need to grant access to hundreds or even thousands of employees based on their roles and responsibilities. That said, it is increasingly popular amongst smaller organizations as it is often easier to manage than access control lists.

In an RBAC system, user access provisioning is based on the needs of a group (e.g. marketing department) based on common responsibilities and needs. This means each role has a given a set of permissions, and individuals can be assigned to one or more roles.

For example, you may designate a user an administrator, a specialist, or an end-user, and limit access to specific resources or tasks. Inside an organization, different roles may be provided write access while others may only be provided viewing permissions.  

The user-role and role-permissions relationships make it easy to perform role assignment because individual users no longer have unique access rights, rather they have privileges that conform to the permissions assigned to their specific role or job function.

For example, if you were applying RBAC to an organization that uses UpGuard, you could give all vendor risk management employees user accounts on UpGuard Vendor Risk.

What are Examples of RBAC?

Through RBAC, you can control what end-users can do at board and granular levels. You can designate whether the user is an administrator or standard user, and align roles and permissions based on the user's position in the organization. 

The core principle is to allocate only enough access for an employee to do their job.

If the employee's job changes, you may need to add and/or remove them for their current role group.

By adding a user to a role group, the user has access to all the permissions of that group. If they are removed, access becomes restricted. Users can also be assigned temporary access to certain data or programs to complete a task and be removed after.

Common examples of RBAC include:

  • Software engineering role: Has access to GCP, AWS, and GitHub
  • Marketing role: Has access to HubSpot, Google Analytics, Facebook Ads, and Google Ads
  • Finance role: Has access to Xero and ADP
  • Human resources role: Has access to Lever and BambooHR  

In each of these roles, there may be a management tier and an individual contributor tier that has different levels of permission inside the individual applications granted to each role.

What are the Benefits of RBAC?

Once you implement RBAC, access management is easier as long as you adhere strictly to role requirements. According to a 2010 report for NIST by the Research Triangle Institute, RBAC reduces employee downtime, improves provisioning, and provides efficient access control policy administration. 

The benefits of RBAC include the possibility to:

What are Best Practices for Implementing RBAC?

Role-based access control allows you to improve your security posture, comply with relevant regulations, and reduce operational overhead. However, implementing role-based access control across an entire organization can be complex, and can result in pushback from stakeholders.

To implement RBAC, you should follow these best practices:

  • Start with your needs: Before moving to RBAC, you need to understand what job functions use what software, supporting business functions, and technologies. Additionally, you will want to consider any regulatory or audit requirements you may have.
  • Scope your implementation: You don't necessarily have to implement RBAC across your entire organization right away, consider narrowing the scope to systems or applications that store sensitive data first.
  • Define roles: Once you've performed your analysis and decided on the scope, you can begin to design roles around what permissions different roles need. Watch out for common role design pitfalls like excessive or insufficient granularity, role overlap, or granting too many exceptions.
  • Write a policy: Any changes made need to be outlined for current and future employees to see. Even with the use of an RBAC tool, documentation can help avoid potential issues. 
  • Roll out in stages: Consider rolling out RBAC in stages to reduce workload and disruption to the business. Start with a core set of users and coarse-grain controls before increasing granularity. Collect feedback from internal users and monitor your business metrics before implementing additional roles.
  • Continually adapt: It takes most organizations a few iterations to roll out RBAC successfully. Early on, you should evaluate your roles and security controls frequently. 

What are Complementary Control Mechanisms to RBAC?

Access control measures regulate user permissions, such as who can view sensitive information on a computer system or who can run specific tasks in a CRM. They are an essential part of minimizing business risk.

Access control systems can be physical (limiting access to buildings, rooms, or servers) or logical controlling digital access to data, files, or networks).

As such, the RBAC model can be complemented with other access control techniques such as:

  • Discretionary access control (DAC): DAC is an access control method where the owner of a protected system or resource sets policies defining who can access it. This can include physical or digital controls, and is less restrictive than other access control systems, as it offers individuals complete control over their own resources. The downside is it is inherently less secure, as associated programs will inherit security settings and the owner may accidentally grant access to the wrong end-user.
  • Mandatory access control (MAC): MAC is an access control method where a central authority regulates access rights based on multiple levels of security. MAC assigns classifications to system resources, the security kernel, and the operating system. Only users or devices with the required information security clearance can access protected resources. This is a common access control method in government and military organizations. 

Read our complete guide on access control here.

What are the Alternatives to RBAC?

Alternatives to RBAC include:

  • Access control lists (ACL): An access control list (ACL) is a table that lists permissions attached to computing resources. It tells the operating system which users can access an object, and what actions they can carry out. There is an entry for each individual user, which is linked to attributes for each object (e.g. view, export, create). For most businesses, RBAC is superior to ACL in terms of security and administrative overhead. ACL is better suited for implementing controls for low-level data, while RBAC is better used as a company-wide access control system. 
  • Attribute-based access control (ABAC): ABAC evaluates a set of rules and policies to manage access rights according to specific attributes, such as environmental, system, object, or user information. It applies boolean logic to grant or deny access to users based on the evaluation of atomic or set-valued attributes and the relationships between them. ABAC differs to RBAC as it doesn't rely on pre-defined roles, and ABAC provides more granularity. For example, an RBAC system may grant access to GitHub for all managers, while an ABAC policy would limit access to only software engineers.

How UpGuard Can Help You Improve Manage First, Third and Fourth-Party Risk

Companies like Intercontinental ExchangeTaylor FryThe New York Stock Exchange, IAG, First State Super, Akamai, Morningstar, and NASA use UpGuard's security ratings to protect their data, prevent data breaches and assess their security posture.

UpGuard Vendor Risk can minimize the amount of time your organization spends assessing related and third-party information security controls by automating vendor questionnaires and providing vendor questionnaire templates.

We can help you continuously monitor your vendors' external security controls and provide an unbiased security rating. 

We can also help you instantly benchmark your current and potential vendors against their industry, so you can see how they stack up.

For the assessment of your information security controls, UpGuard BreachSight can monitor your organization for 70+ security controls providing a simple, easy-to-understand security rating and automatically detect leaked credentials and data exposures in S3 buckets, Rsync servers, GitHub repos and more.

The major difference between UpGuard and other security ratings vendors is that there is very public evidence of our expertise in preventing data breaches and data leaks

Our expertise has been featured in the likes of The New York TimesThe Wall Street JournalBloombergThe Washington PostForbesReuters, and TechCrunch.

You can read more about what our customers are saying on Gartner reviews, and read our customer case studies here

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