ABAC vs RBAC for Access Control in AWS

Explore how Access Controls can protect your sensitive information from unauthorized access.
Kelly Briceno Featured New Team Member
Kelly Briceno | Apr 20 2023
5 min read

Data access control is a crucial aspect of data security, as it ensures that sensitive information is protected from unauthorized access. Two commonly used methods for data access control are Role Based Access Control (RBAC) and Attribute-Based Access Control (ABAC). Let’s compare both methods and explain how you can use Amazon Web Services (AWS) to implement either approach.

Role Based Access Control

Role Based Access Control (RBAC) is a widely used data access control method that is based on user roles. In RBAC users are assigned a specific role such as administrator, manager, or user, and that role then determines the level of access they have to the data. It can also be used to govern which data, or what kinds of data, may be accessed by a user. For example, an administrator might have full access to all data, while a user might only have read-only access. Another example, is you have a role for a financial analyst that might be assigned permissions to access financial reports, while a sales representative's permissions do not allow access to those same financial reports. The advantage of RBAC is its simplicity, as it is straightforward to assign roles and manage access.

There are several subtypes of RBAC, including Hierarchical, Rule-Based, Role-Based Dynamic Authorization Management, Task-Based, and Context-Aware.

  1. Hierarchical RBAC, this type of RBAC uses a hierarchical structure to define roles and permissions, with higher-level roles inheriting the permissions of lower-level roles.
  2. Rule-based RBAC uses a set of rules to determine access control decisions, such as allowing or denying access based on a user’s department, location or job title.
  3. Role-based Dynamic Authorization Management, also known as RBAC-DAM for short, is a type of RBAC that allows for the dynamic creation and deletion of roles, as well as the assignment of roles to users, in response to changes in the organization or system.
  4. Task-based RBAC focuses on the tasks that a user needs to perform, rather than their job title or department, and assigns the permissions based on the specific tasks they need to perform.
  5. Context-aware RBAC considers additional context information such as the time of day or the user's location in making access control decisions.

These are the commonly recognized subtypes of RBAC, which provide a flexible and adaptable approach to managing access to system resources.

Attribute Based Access Control

Attribute Based Access Control (ABAC) is a more flexible data access control method that is based on attributes. Those attributes can include user characteristics, such as job title, location, or security clearance, as well as characteristics concerning the data being accessed, such as the type of information, the date it was created, or the purpose for which it is being used. With ABAC access to data is determined by evaluating the attributes of both the user and the data. This allows for fine-grained control over data access, as you can specify exactly who has access to what information.

For example, a company may have a human resources database that contains sensitive employee data such as salary or performance reviews. To ensure this data is only accessed by authorized personnel you can implement an ABAC system that will evaluate a set of attributes associated with the employee, such as job title, department, and location. This system then will compare these attributes to a set of policies that define which employees are authorized to access the database. If the attributes match then they will have access to the database, if they do not match, then it denies access.

This approach is more flexible and adaptable, as the policies can be easily modified to reflect changes in the organization or to respond to new security threats. By allowing employees to access the information they need to perform their work but also ensuring that sensitive information is only accessed by those authorized.

Using AWS for Data Access Control

AWS offers several services that can be used to implement RBAC and ABAC for data access control. For RBAC, you can use Amazon IAM (identity and access management), which allows you to create and manage IAM roles and groups, assign permissions to those roles and groups, and control who has access to your AWS resources. You can then control which users have access to which roles and are in which groups. You can also use AWS Organizations to apply RBAC policies across an entire organization, allowing you to manage access to resources across multiple accounts.

Take a deeper dive into AWS IAM and ABAC with these links!

For ABAC, you can use IAM as well by specifying which AWS resources are accessible to which users or groups based on various attributes such as the user's AWS account, source IP address, etc. A deep dive into the AWS IAM user guide can provide valuable insight into how to implement this.

You can also implement ABAC for AWS services such as Amazon SQS, as it supports attribute-based access control. This article is an excellent example.

There are many other options within AWS that can help implement ABAC or RBAC controls.

RBAC and ABAC are two widely used methods for data access control, and each has its advantages and disadvantages. RBAC is simple and straightforward, while ABAC offers more flexible and fine-grained control over data access. AWS provides several services that can be used to implement either approach, depending on your specific requirements. Whether you choose RBAC or ABAC, it is important to have a data access control plan in place to protect sensitive information and maintain the security of your data.

Kelly Briceno Featured New Team Member
Kelly Briceno