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What is ABAC?

Posted 25th Jan 2023 by Ben Arent

Attribute-Based Access Control (ABAC) is a method of regulating access to resources based on the attributes of both the resource and the user requesting access. In ABAC, access decisions are made based on the evaluation of attributes associated with the user, the resource, and the environment in which the access request is made.

There is a wide range of attributes that can be used to make ABAC decisions; some examples of these attributes include:

  • User attributes:
    • Role (e.g. administrator, developer, user)
    • Department (e.g. finance, HR, IT)
    • Clearance level (e.g. top secret, secret, confidential)
    • Authentication method (e.g. password, smartcard, biometric)
  • Resource attributes:
    • Type (e.g. file, folder, database)
    • Sensitivity (e.g. confidential, public)
    • Location (e.g. on-premises, cloud)
    • Ownership (e.g. department, project)
  • Environmental attributes:
    • Time of access (e.g. business hours, after hours)
    • Location of access (e.g. office, remote)
    • Device used to access (e.g. company-owned, personal)
    • Network used to access (e.g. company network, public network)

These are just a few examples of the many different attributes that can be used in ABAC policies. The specific attributes used will depend on the organization's security requirements and the nature of the resources being protected. NIST provides a great Guide to Attribute Based Access Control (ABAC) Definition and Considerations for anyone in highly compliant industries.

For example, an ABAC policy could be set to allow access to a specific cloud-based resource only to users with the role of 'developer,' and with permission to access the resource only from a company-owned device during business hours, within the company network.

In cloud computing, ABAC can be used to secure resources such as cloud-based data storage, virtual machines and network resources. In this context, ABAC allows organizations to define and enforce access policies based on a wide range of attributes such as the user's role, location, device and time of access request.

ABAC provides a more fine-grained and flexible approach to access control than traditional RBAC (Role-Based Access Control) as it allows for the creation of policies that take into account a wide range of attributes, and can be changed easily in response to changing business needs or security threats.

However, ABAC also requires a more complex infrastructure to implement and manage, and it needs to be integrated with cloud infrastructure, such as Identity and Access Management  (IAM) Services to function fully. Due to the added complexity, we recommend using a system that provides testing and an API, such as OPA (Open Policy Agent) and Teleport Predicate.

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