Identity Governance Blog

A Guide to Understanding Role Management and Permissions

By Stephen Lowing, VP Marketing at Omada

For any organization building an Identity Governance and Administration (IGA) solution, it is essential for Identity and Access Program managers to understand the concept of role management. This includes gaining fluency in role management features, concepts, and practices such as the various user role permission models and their implications for access control. IT infrastructure managers must familiarize themselves with the technical aspects of role management systems and understand how to integrate user role management with existing Identity Access Management (IAM) solutions. CISOs/CSOs and other business leaders must have the capacity to explain and show how effective, efficient role management strengthens overall security posture, reduces risk exposure, and factors into successful compliance with regulatory requirements. In this post, we will offer an overview of the fundamentals of role management and role assignment in the content of an overall best practice modern IGA strategy. You will learn the benefits of adopting a role management framework and see examples of how it drives more secure and efficient business processes.

 

What is role management?

Role management helps organizations manage an authorization process. It allows Identity and Access Program managers to specify the resources that users in an IT infrastructure may access. Role management enables organizations to engage in assigning users to specific role groups such as manager, sales, member, etc. and manage these roles assigned to groups of users as discrete units.

How does role management work?

An organization works to create roles in the IT infrastructure. The next step is to create access rules for specific assets. Here is an example: an IT infrastructure may include assets to which an organization wants to provide access only to specific role groups and deny access to other role groups. Controlling access to sensitive assets using role management enables an organization to create role assignment policy independent from individual users. Organizations need not grant access to restricted assets to all roles. They can grant access to specific role groups, then provision, de-provision, add, modify, or remove user roles as organizational changes dictate.

Role-based access control (RBAC) enables organizations to assign users to more than one role assigned. In a sales department, for instance, a manager may have role permissions for both management applications and sales applications. In this case, each discrete role has a specific set of permissions and a sales manager who belongs to both roles would then have both sets of permissions. When organizations manage user roles, they create flexibility to change permissions for groups of users; enabling them to provision and de-provision users without having to identify and execute changes to the existing IT infrastructure.

 

What is role assignment?

Role assignment is the process of allocating specific permissions and responsibilities to users within an organization’s IT infrastructure, determining what data and applications they can (and cannot) access, edit, or read. Role assignment helps streamline access control and security management by allowing administrators to manage permissions at a higher level. Assignment permissions at this level promote consistency and reduce the risk of errors or oversight in access provisioning.

What is the difference between user management and role management?

User management refers to the administration of individual user accounts within an IT infrastructure and includes tasks such as creating unique new user accounts, assigning login credentials, storing user information, modifying existing accounts, and deactivating or deleting accounts when necessary. The main purpose is managing the identities and access privileges of individual users.

Role management focuses on defining and assigning specific roles or groups of permissions within a system. Permissions are not assigned directly to individual users, but to roles. The role management user simplifies access control and administration by grouping users with similar access needs together under common roles.

What are the key components of user role management?

  1. Role definition. Roles are defined within the system, and permissions or access rights associated are specified each role. Roles are often predefined based on common responsibilities in the organization.
  2. User identification. Users are identified within the system through their unique user accounts.
  3. Mapping roles to users. Identity and Access Program management teams assign one or more roles to each unique user account; typically, through an administrative interface or dashboard.
  4. Permissions propagation. Once roles are assigned to users, the system automatically grants the corresponding permissions to them based on their assigned roles. Users inherit the permissions associated with the roles they have been assigned.
  5. Review and adjustment. Role assignments should be periodically reviewed and adjusted as needed to ensure that users have the appropriate level of access for their current job roles or responsibilities.

 

What are the principal user role permission models?

User role permission models are access control frameworks used to define and manage permissions based on the roles assigned to users. Role modeling helps administrators organize and control access to resources effectively. Common user role permission models include:

Role-Based Access Control (RBAC)

In RBAC, permissions are assigned to roles rather than directly to individual users and users are assigned to one or more roles based on their job functions or responsibilities. The role assignment policy that RBAC drives enables administrators to define and manage permissions at the role level and simplifies permission management.

Rule-based access control

Rule-based access control extends RBAC by allowing administrators to define access control rules based on conditions or events. Access decisions are based on predefined rules that evaluate conditions such as time of access, user location, or user behavior. Rule-based access control enables more fine-grained control over access permissions and can adapt to changing security requirements or conditions.

Attribute-based access control (ABAC)

ABAC makes access control decisions by evaluating various attributes of users, resources, and the current context. These attributes can include user roles, user attributes (such as department or location), resource attributes (such as sensitivity or type), and environmental factors (such as time of access or network location).

Mandatory access control (MAC)

MAC is a strict access control model commonly used in highly secure environments, such as government or military systems. The model bases access decisions on security labels assigned to users, processes, and resources, which are typically set by system administrators. In the MAC model, users can only access resources with matching or compatible security labels, and access cannot be overridden.

Discretionary access control (DAC)

In collaborative environments where users need more control over access to their own resources, the DAC model grants users control over the access permissions of resources they own. Owners may grant or revoke access permissions to other users or groups at their discretion.

 

What are the benefits of user role management?

Better access control

User role management enables administrators to handle role assignment more efficiently by assigning distinct roles to users and ensuring individuals only have access to the resources and functionalities necessary for their specific jobs. This is the basis for establishing the principle of Least Privilege to ensure only the level of access required to perform their functional. This helps maintain security and prevent unauthorized access to sensitive assets.

Enhanced security and compliance

User role management reduces the risk of data breaches, insider threats, and other security incidents. Assigning roles with appropriate permissions limits the potential damage caused by malicious acts or human error. User role management also helps organizations comply with regulatory requirements over sensitive data access.

Streamlined access provisioning and de-provisioning

User role management enables administrators to assign roles and permissions in a structured and automated manner. This streamlines administrative tasks and reduces the time and effort required to manage user access and permissions individually. Onboarding new resources can be made much more efficient by establishing a set of baseline access (commonly referred to as “Birthright” access).

Enhancing operational efficiency and cost reduction

User role management contributes to optimizing resource allocation and reducing operational overhead. As organizations evolve, user role management systems scale to enable administrators to easily add, modify, or remove permissions to user roles as needed.

Customization

User role management systems offer flexibility in defining custom roles and permissions tailored to the specific needs of an organization. Administrators can fine-tune access controls to match the unique requirements of different contexts.

Audit Trails

Auditing capabilities in user role management systems track user activities and changes to roles and permissions, providing visibility and transparency into user activities.

Collaboration

User role management ensures team members have the appropriate level of access to shared resources. By defining roles members have based on responsibilities and project requirements, organizations can promote collaboration while safeguarding sensitive information.

 

What are some practical applications of role management?

Here are some real-world applications for user role management in various industries:

Role engineering and design in finance

The access control that user role management provides in the finance sector is critical to preventing unauthorized access to sensitive information and mitigating the risk of security incidents like data exfiltration.

Role mining and analysis in healthcare

Role analysis of user access patterns and role mining techniques like clustering or association role mining help identify roles and permissions required for healthcare professionals. User role management helps organizations comply with strict regulations by ensuring that only authorized personnel can access and manipulate sensitive information.

Role life cycle management and maintenance in manufacturing

Effective role lifecycle management for users in a manufacturing organization helps improve efficiency and ensure business continuity in critical processes like supply chain management, production, and quality control. Automating role provisioning and role recertification reduces costs while maintaining regulatory compliance.

 

Conclusion

As a practical matter, adopting role management and role assignment models without a dedicated, proven approach backed by robust technology can be difficult to do. The reasons are manifold, and they boil down to a lack of understanding of the principles and an overreliance on people-generated actions. The results are too many over permissioned users, credential stealing, lateral movement and eventually a costly and labor-intensive cybersecurity incident.

Using a modern IGA like Omada Identity Cloud effectively automates user role management and role assignment and reduces the amount of manual work to execute them. The result is a streamlined access management processes that enables CISOs/CSOs to decommission legacy systems and cut costs while still adhering to compliance requirements and maintaining business continuity.

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