Top 5 Access Control Challenges

4 min read

Identity and access management (IAM) is an integral part of security systems. Without proper authentication and authorization, it would be impossible to practice cybersecurity principles such as zero trust and least privilege. 

By now, most organizations have a firm grasp on the identity part of IAM, including concepts like multi-factor and token-based authentication. However, implementing access control remains challenging as methods, such as role-based access control (RBAC), have proven inadequate in many scenarios.  

This article discusses the primary access control challenges enterprises face, the limitations of RBAC and solutions to address these issues. 

Top 5 access control problems

Access control systems regulate who or what can access information and resources and what they can do with these assets. Enterprises typically face these access control issues: 

1. Distributed IT systems

IT systems nowadays often consist of multiple cloud and on-premise networks. These systems can be geographically scattered and include numerous devices, assets and virtual machines. Access is granted to all these devices, and keeping track of them can be difficult. 

As we discovered in our 2022 Cloud-Native Alignment Report, 97% of businesses plan to increase their usage of cloud-native technologies. This migration will lead to distributed IT systems becoming the norm and access control methods will need to evolve accordingly.   

2. Policy management

Decision-makers within the organization write policies and the IT department translates the intended policies into code for implementation. Coordination between these two groups is essential to keep the access control system up-to-date and working as intended. Policy implementers often lack an understanding of the intent behind access control rules, and decision-makers usually can’t update or change policies on their own. 

3. Excessive permissions and exceptions

In a competitive market, companies value the agility and flexibility that cloud workloads offer. Security is often overlooked in a rush to reach a fast time-to-market. Administrators may grant unnecessary permissions to individual users to prevent any delays in development. This practice significantly lowers the level of security provided by the access control system. 

A 2019 report by Verizon found that internal actors were involved in 34% of all data breaches that year. Practicing the security principle of least privilege by limiting the number of excessive permissions granted to users can help prevent these internal data leaks. 

In addition, special circumstances sometimes require making policy exceptions, which can be hard to keep track of and manage. Recognizing unauthorized access when making exceptions too frequently can also be challenging.  

4. Monitoring and reporting   

Organizations must continuously monitor access control systems to ensure compliance with internal policies and government regulations. Any violations or changes should be identified and reported immediately. Failure to do so could result in confidential information falling into the wrong hands, leading to fines under privacy laws. According to GlobalScape, corporations lose an average of $4 million in revenue due to a single compliance violation. 

5. Access control models

Access control methods offer various degrees of granularity. Choosing the appropriate access control model for your organization lets you walk the thin line between adequate security and employee productivity. 

RBAC remains the most widely implemented authorization solution. RBAC is easy to set up and is more suitable for small businesses and firms. Other legacy authorization systems include mandatory access control (MAC) and discretionary access control (DAC). These models are often used by military and government agencies.  

More advanced models include attribute-based access control (ABAC) and policy-based access management (PBAM). These systems offer fine-grained control over authorization decisions, allowing you to assign attributes that determine whether users can access a resource.

Discover how the largest direct bank in the U.S manages access control policies with the Styra Declarative Authorization Service (DAS). 

Why you need to go beyond RBAC methods

Despite the ease of implementation, RBAC has several disadvantages regarding enterprise-grade authorization. Drawbacks include: 

Role explosion: The main limitation of RBAC, especially for large companies and organizations, is role explosion. As the company grows, more positions are added to the organizational structure. Administrators must manually add those roles to the RBAC system. An individual user can also have several roles assigned to them if they change positions within the company. Managing a large number of roles can lead to oversight and security complications. 

Management and maintenance challenges: RBAC systems require regular maintenance to be effective. Roles need to be updated or removed as employees move departments, get promotions or leave the company. Although implementation is straightforward, administrators must still spend significant time defining roles for everyone in the organization. 

Permissions only assigned to roles: With the RBAC model, you can only set permissions to roles, not to the resources or assets. The system ignores resource attributes such as ownership and location when granting access. 

Static authorization: RBAC rules are inflexible and do not consider dynamic factors when granting access. This limitation makes RBAC unsuitable for protecting highly sensitive data that users must access only on-premises or during working hours. 

Kubernetes intent-based APIs: Intent-based APIs only allow a certain number of actions to be performed by users. RBAC policies do not have the granularity needed for Kubernetes API security and trying to achieve fine-grained access control through RBAC would be unnecessarily complicated. 

The solution: Secure access with the Open Policy Agent (OPA) 

OPA is an open-source policy engine that uses simple APIs to offload policy decision-making from your applications. Policies are written in a high-level policy language called Rego, making it easier for business users to understand and implement them. 

Another advantage of OPA is that you can use policy as code to implement RBAC and ABAC interchangeably, according to your organization’s specific needs. OPA has multiple use cases across the cloud-native environment, including microservices, Kubernetes and Terraform, to help you solve most access control problems.

OPA, however, does not come with an out-of-the-box control plane to manage all OPA deployments from a central location. Styra originally designed OPA to solve authorization at the level of the application, not entire enterprise systems. 

As OPA gained popularity and giants in the tech world started implementing it in their cloud systems, Styra realized the demand for a turnkey management solution and launched Styra DAS. 

Styra DAS — the industry’s first control plane for OPA — manages the entire policy lifecycle, from authoring to enforcement. It also enables you to monitor policies and see violations in real-time. Policies can be tested and validated before implementation and, even better, you can use a graphical user interface (GUI) instead of a text editor to write policies.

Book a demo to see how we can help you overcome access control challenges in cloud-native environments. 


What does access control protect against?    

Access control prevents data breaches and exfiltration. According to IBM, a data breach costs an average of $9.44 million in the United States. Stolen information could include customer data, healthcare records and intellectual property.  

What are some best practices for implementing access control?

Some best practices for access control implementation are choosing the most appropriate access control model for your environment, monitoring user access across your system and applying the principles of least privilege and zero trust.      

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