What Is Fine-Grained Access Control?

4 min read

A data and security breach often leads to fines and the loss of customer trust for organizations. An IBM report estimates that a data breach on average costs $4.35 million in 2022, a 2.6% increase from the previous year. The increased concern with data and security breaches — along with the need to address more complicated use cases — reinforces the call for more granular methods of access control.

This post examines fine-grained access control — a type of access control with high granularity — and discusses its importance and implementation.

Types of access control

You can use access control to regulate who can use your data and resources and what they can do with them. By setting specific parameters around company data and resources, you can ensure that only the employees who need these assets to do their jobs can acquire them.

You can choose from different types of access control according to your organization’s or application’s needs. While easy to implement, a coarse-grained role-based access control (RBAC) system is not scalable in large organizations with many different employee roles. In other instances, a more granular access control model better suits organizations that need to let certain employees use resources but have various permissions in place to control the actions they can perform with those resources. 

What is fine-grained access control?

Fine-grained access control allows or denies requests to use assets, such as data and resources, based on multiple conditions or entitlements. It applies a higher level of specificity and precision to access control permissions. 

For example, consider the IT system of a company with teams in Los Angeles and New York. The system is set up so team members can only view customers’ account information from their respective locations but cannot change it. 

Access to customer information needs to be limited to take advantage of the security principle of least privilege. In addition, someone higher in the organizational hierarchy, such as the manager or the VP, must have all data from both offices and be able to change customer information. 

In this case, we have three attributes that need to be taken into consideration. When granting access to customer information, the system checks who is asking for access, where they are located and what permissions are assigned to their role. 

Implementing access control plays a crucial role in cybersecurity. Attribute-based access control (ABAC) and policy-based access management (PBAM) are the most common fine-grained access control examples. 

Benefits of fine-grained control

Here are five reasons why fine-grained control is necessary to meet the needs of the dynamic modern IT environment: 

1. The security principle of least privilege

The idea behind the principle of least privilege is to provide the access control level required to perform legitimate work functions and nothing more. This practice leads to better system stability and security.

Setting up fine-grained authorization can provide an effective method of practicing this principle. Although coarse-grained authorization methods such as RBAC also let you put least privilege into practice, they have limitations regarding scaling and the granularity level. 

2. Privacy and confidentiality

Data leaks and new privacy laws have put organizations under increased pressure to protect consumer data. According to the Pew Research Center, 93% of Americans felt it was important to control who could see and use their personal information. Companies must also meet all regulation and compliance requirements when dealing with sensitive information, such as healthcare records or financial data. 

Fine-grained authorization reduces the risk of data exposure and enables organizations to abide by government regulations more effectively. 

3. Cloud computing and centralized data storage

Data sources used in cloud computing are often stored together. In addition, data-driven companies store all their data inside data warehouses for economic and administrative benefits. 

Using fine-grained control to prevent all internal data from being available to everyone within the organization ensures adequate security and privacy while allowing organizations to scale and realize the benefits of centralized data storage. 

4. Accuracy and precision 

A high level of granularity provides more accurate methods of implementing access control, particularly for sensitive data. Each resource can be assigned policies instead of relying on extensive role categorization. Setting permissions that carry more weight than read-only access, such as the ability to edit or delete information, allows a broader range of stakeholders to use the resource. 

Policies can also allow you to be more precise with access control implementation. Instead of altering the entire system every time you need to update access control, you can quickly set permissions for specific assets only.  

5. Third parties and remote workers

In certain situations, companies must let outside vendors and partners access specific data within their systems. Using fine-grained control to limit the scope of shared data mitigates security risks, and permissions can be revoked when the third party no longer requires it. 

Research by Ladders shows that nearly 15% of all high-paying jobs in the United States are now remote. FGAC allows you to set flexible permissions to these remote worker roles based on time of day and location. You can also set access permissions for highly-sensitive assets to only allow on-premises access. 

FGAC in cloud-native applications with Styra DAS for OPA

A cloud-native architecture is more cost-efficient and easier to scale, and microservices are a key component. Not surprisingly, many companies are migrating to the cloud and microservices strategy for their technology stacks. However, developers often face authorization and security challenges in microservices during the application lifecycle. 

Styra created Open Policy Agent (OPA) to solve these challenges and donated the project to the Cloud Native Computing Foundation. This open-source policy engine allows users to deploy fine-grained policy-as-code access control for all application infrastructure layers that outperform other RBAC and ABAC models. A microservice application may comprise hundreds or thousands of individual services. OPA can be deployed alongside each of these services to provide authorization. 

Styra Declarative Authorization Service (DAS) is the control plane of choice to manage all OPA deployments across the cloud-native stack. Styra DAS comes with in-built policies that meet regulatory and compliance requirements, reducing developer overhead and enabling you to reach a quicker time-to-market for your application. You can also use the auditing and monitoring capabilities of Styra DAS to ensure appropriate security implementation within your system.

Try Styra DAS

For enterprise-grade implementation, book a demo with one of our engineers to discuss your particular needs.   


What is fine-grained access control in cloud computing?

Each data item in cloud computing is given a set of access control policies that a policy enforcer executes after checking user credentials and access level. The policy enforcer is not the owner of the resource. 

What is access vs authorization? 

Access means having the authority to perform actions on a given resource. Authorization defines access policies, meaning what a user or machine can do with a resource and in what way. Both terms are often used interchangeably.

Cloud native

Entitlement Explosion Repair

Join Styra and PACLabs on April 11 for a webinar exploring how organizations are using Policy as Code for smarter Access Control.

Speak with an Engineer

Request time with our team to talk about how you can modernize your access management.