Is Role Based Access Control dead?

This question has been coming up a lot in different circles lately and it seems like there isn't a great deal of online buzz or conversation about it, so I would like to bring it to the online collective for discussion and debate.

I have contested lately that RBAC (Role Based Access Control) just flat out doesn't work in today's world. There was once upon a time, when applications were much simpler that this concept fit very well in the application security world, but we no longer live in that world.

The problem with RBAC is that it is a big hammer. It is what I like to refer to as an all-or-nothing solution to a problem that deserves a much finer grained answer. To elaborate on this, let me first explain the concept of RBAC.

1. Applications have users.
2. Users need to be be able to perform actions.
3. Actions are associated with Roles that are allowed to perform said actions.
4. Users belong to one or more Roles.

This is a very *simple* solution to the problem of access control in an application, and in simple applications, it works quite well. RBAC is widely supported by vendors and comes built in to most web application containers. It also happens to be the access control mechanism used by most OS vendors (Replace Role with Group and Voila!). There are tons of implementations for J2EE applications such as Spring ACEGI, JAAS, etc.

When you want to check if a user can perform some action you simply use a quick check

   if ( user.isInRole( Roles.ADMINISTRATOR ) ) {

So what is the problem with this simple, widely supported, very popular means of access control? It's simple really, RBAC has no awareness of the context request for access.

To illustrate this point, consider the following situation.

You have just completed coding a wonderful project management application for Big Humungous Inc. that filled all the requirements, is unhackable, and even has a list of features far exceeding the clients requests. One day you recieve a call that your client is creating a special group of representatives that need to have administrative access to customer accounts that belong to Group A between 2pm and 3pm every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

Now you have a problem. A role is an all-or-nothing access mechanism. So you can't just add the users to the Administrator Role, so your only option is to go back into the code and add a new check in the code that says am I in this role, and do I meet all these other requisites to do the requested action. Then you need to implement that code in every place where you would normally ask is the user an administrator?

Now let me introduce to a different approach to Access Control. It goes by many names. Some call it Activity Based Access Control, I call it Context Based Access Control. The concept is simple.

Make your Access Control mechanism aware of context!

There are any number of ways to do this, but I will address that in a subsequent article as this is more about the interface it provides. Adding context can allow you to specify any number of dynamic situation that are taken into account when determining whether a user has access to perform an action. Consider the following:

public interface AccessContext {
   boolean isAllowed( User u );

public interface AccessRole {
   // Some methods

public interface User {
   // ... Other user'ish stuff

public interface AccessController {
   boolean canUserPerformAction( User u, Context c, Action a );

public interface Action {
   void performAction();

This is a simple outline of how a Context Based Access Control API might look. Now in your code you might have something that looks like this:

   User user = RequestHelper.getUser();
   Context requestContext = RequestHelper.getContext();
   if ( accessController.canUserPerformAction( user, requestContext, new Action( "Delete User" ) );

Of course this is a very simple and open ended example, but it gets the point across rather well and illustrates the ability to solve problems in a manner that allows the AC layer to be as fine-grained or big hammer as it needs to be in any given situation.

To summarize:

1. Role Based Security doesn't address the problems of today's applications.
2. Context or Activity Based Security has the power to address those problems, but there is no force driving it forward.

I have proposed to the ESAPI team that we are in the perfect position to address this problem at the API level. Designing a clean interface that addresses the simple as well as complex control situations is really the difficult part in this concept.

An interesting read if you have a second - it looks like Microsoft had the same idea 2 years ago, too bad they patented it and did absolutely nothing with it.


I would love to hear what the 'verse has to say about this so let's get some conversation going around this topic and see what we can come up with!