Role-Based Access Control in Cybersecurity – The Practical Guide

Studies show more than 30% of cybersecurity-related issues have to do with insider threats. Mitigating attacks from within is never easy, though there are certain systems you can implement to make mitigation a priority. Role-based access control is one of them. So, how can RBAC help your company?

Role-based access control helps reduce the risk of internal and external threats by assigning a role to employees and limiting their network access on a role-based scope. This strategy allows employees to do their job without putting the network at risk, intentionally or otherwise.

Is role-based access control the right strategy for your company? It’s difficult to figure out whether to overhaul your network security or not – especially when you know what that entails. Fortunately, you can make a decision once you understand its benefits, real-life examples, and best practices for implementation.

What’s Role-based Access Control in Cybersecurity?

Role-based access control is a cybersecurity network mechanism that allows users to access different parts of a network based on their assigned roles.

For example, a big company will assign different roles to employees based on their department. So, those working in Human Resources will only access the HR part of the network – but will have restricted or forbidden access to areas related to IT or Sales.

RBAC is an amazing approach for mid-sized and large companies that have a hard time monitoring their network.

A threat actor trying to access sensitive files will do so undetected if there’s no network segmentation in place, though that same person will quickly trigger an alarm if RBAC is implemented before the attack.

3 Benefits of RBAC

  • Better Efficiency. Most employees are not tech-savvy, meaning they have a hard time dealing with computers and other devices. Fortunately, RBAC allows everyone to have a more straightforward approach when it comes to working with technology. Having fewer options means making fewer mistakes, thus increasing efficiency.
  • Decreased Risk. Role-based access control reduces the attack surface, thus increasing your chance of successfully defending your company. This approach requires you to limit user access, making it harder for threat actors to infiltrate your system by stealing login credentials, infecting employees’ devices with malware, and so on.
  • Reduced Costs. Companies everywhere are seeing an increase in their fixed costs because bandwidth charges are rising. Implementing an RBAC approach helps with cybersecurity – and the economy. Since employees have reduced access to the company’s network, they won’t use that much bandwidth willingly or by mistake.

5 Real Role-based Access Control Examples

1. Human Resources Get Access to Payroll

Human resources have access to a lot of sensitive files. They deal with employee profiles daily – and one tiny mistake on their part could cause a data leak, which could end in a costly lawsuit.

At the same time, allowing anyone in the company to access those files could be problematic for the same reasons. In fact, it could be a bigger issue because it increases the attack surface.

For example, something as small as allowing employees to see their own records is cause for alarm. For that reason, it’s always a good idea to implement RBAC and have HR deal with that alone.

2. The Finance Department Follow Cash Flow

Employees working in Human Resources need to take care of payroll, which is a big part of the financial aspect of a company. However, that doesn’t mean HR should have their hands on anything else finance-related.

Why? Because that’s up to the finance department! The people in finance deal with very sensitive records. One leak there could trigger a corporate scandal, a compliance audit, and a few more headaches.

Role-based access control also prevents hackers from accessing files they shouldn’t. Imagine a threat actor compromises someone from sales. RBAC would prevent that same threat actor from looking at financial files.

3. Cloud Engineers Manage the Cloud

A study revealed almost every issue happening on the cloud has to do with users, not providers. In other words, it’s probably on you if something goes wrong with your cloud storage.

How can RBAC help you with that? It’s simple! Implementing this approach allows the right people to deal with anything cloud-related. Doing so becomes critical when you realize engineers alone should take care of sensitive stuff, such as cloud migration.

Role-based access control allows everyone else to access the cloud to view files, though they won’t get permission to do anything else – unless we’re talking about engineers!

4. Salespeople See the Products on Sale

Security analysts with real-life experience know how big of a deal tech literacy is. Cybersecurity enthusiasts with no corporate experience often overlook this part of the job – but it’s key to understanding who can handle devices the right way.

Salespeople are often not that tech-savvy to begin with. That’s not a problem if you establish the right security protocols. Implementing RBAC is a great way to deal with negligence and any other issues. You limit your company’s exposure by limiting access.

An employee deleting a file without wanting to isn’t unheard of. Role-based access control should come hand-in-hand with the least-privilege principle, meaning people shouldn’t be able to delete a file they need to read alone.

5. Vendors Have Restricted Access to the Network

Another big part of RBAC is dealing with non-employees who have access to your network. Vendors are often the go-to example of third parties with network access – and you need to assign them a role and limit their scope as well.

Threat actors often look to compromise vendors to access other companies. We’ve talked about how supply chain attacks are on the rise – and will continue to increase because threat actors are successful when deploying them.

Other times, threat actors pose as vendors to compromise a company. Implementing role-based access control can save your company in both cases.

7 Scenarios Where RBAC Can Help

1. HR and Finance Can’t Step on Each Other’s Toes

One of the biggest advantages of implementing an RBAC approach to network segmentation is preventing workplace issues from arising. You can create a peaceful office environment by keeping every department separated.

Let’s take two examples found above: HR and Finance. They both deal with company money in one way or another, though they should never do it in the same way. However, it wouldn’t be the first time if someone from HR accessed finance files or the other way around. It could be by mistake – or it could also be a sign of an insider threat.

Dividing everyone by roles prevents that from happening. Those in finance can only access the files they need – and the same thing should happen in HR (and every other department).

2. Someone in IT Becomes Negligent

Another example found above helps us understand how important it is for cloud engineers to deal with cloud-related stuff. However, that doesn’t mean they can’t make mistakes.

Let’s say you hire a new guy because you’re about to pull a massive data migration to the cloud. The new guy, quite clearly, should be nowhere near making a big decision.

However, that person could make a mistake – thus deleting every piece of information you have within your system. It wouldn’t be the first time something like that happened.

You can easily avoid that catastrophe scenario if you assign roles – and thus reduce the reach of junior employees within the IT department (and every other one as well).

3. A Change in Compliance Laws Puts Your Company at Risk

Tech moves fast – and sometimes, compliance law moves faster. Of course, the government lets companies know ahead of time what will change – and when. However, that doesn’t mean your company doesn’t need time and money to deal with that stuff.

Companies prefer to be safe rather than sorry when it comes to compliance – and that should be your stance too! Implementing role-based access control means staying one step ahead of possible compliance changes.

Why? Because you can quickly change what employees can do by assigning or removing roles. It gives you a foundation to deal with possible compliance changes efficiently.

4. Malicious Actors Find Stolen Credentials Online

One of the worst (and most common) cyberattacks your company can suffer is a threat actor stumbling upon login credentials. They can steal them themselves, find them online, or buy them from someone else.

It’s a tough scenario – but far from impossible to deal with. Having role-based access in place will help you if that happens: first, it will limit the reach of an employee if they have low-level access; second, it’ll help you to quickly take away their permissions (thus making those login credentials useless) once you notice something’s wrong.

RBAC should go hand-in-hand with network monitoring. That way, you can quickly notice suspicious activity and move forward whenever necessary.

5. Hackers Try a Privilege Escalation Attack

What if a hacker doesn’t need login credentials to access sensitive information? That’s exactly what a privilege escalation attack is. A hacker will start at the bottom of your network – and will look for exploits to climb the data ladder.

You may detect the attempt as soon as it happens – or you may have a hacker infiltrate your network for months before you realize what’s going on.

There’s a third option: prevent that entire thing from happening from the get-go. Establishing role-access based control means nobody (employee, hacker, or otherwise) will get access to any area within your company unless they have an assigned role.

So, as long as you have role assignment under control, no hacker will infiltrate your network this way.

6. A Former Employee Still Has Access to the Network

We have talked about how problematic insider threats are. Disgruntled or former employees can do a lot of damage if they know how. From deleting key files to releasing them to the world, there’s a world of possibilities when it comes to insider threats attacking your company.

Fortunately, there’s a way to stop former employees from doing harm. You guessed it! It’s implementing a role-based access control approach to your network. Doing so will help your company twofold.

First, you’ll have an easier time removing a former employee’s access and role within your company, blocking any attempt to do harm instantly. Second, you can easily track who attempted to attack your company from within if it happens: if someone does something, you can quickly identify them thanks to their role.

7. Threat Actors Compromise a Vendor

The biggest companies in the world suffer data breaches because of third party negligence, meaning the rest of us are potential victims too. However, limiting vendor and third party access reduces the chance of that happening.

Threat actors can pretend to be a vendor or compromise one without them knowing. Either way, you may be doing business with someone who will hurt you in the long run. Implementing role-based access control means vendors will have a smaller surface to cause trouble.

You should vet vendors before doing business with them. Do plenty of research before you make a business agreement – then make sure they have limited access to your network when you do!

9 RBAC Best Practices for Implementation

1. Create an RBAC Blueprint

Patience is key when deploying a new system. Implementing role-based access control is no different. You need patience as well as a knack for planning to pull this idea properly.

We’ll take you through this step-by-step guide on how to implement RBAC, though that doesn’t mean each company (including yours) doesn’t have its own nooks and crannies you’ll have to look into before moving forward.

However, here’s the main gist: review the way your company works, create roles for your different employees, assign them, and audit the process. Fix any mistakes and repeat the audit. That’s it!

The two most important steps there are creating the right roles and auditing the process. They both help with dealing with issues as they arise – which is key to preventing pushback from employees.

2. Establish Priorities

The second step is the most important one and, at the same time, may be unnecessary for some companies.

Ask yourself why implementing RBAC is necessary. Is it because you want to overhaul your network security in case something happens? You’re free to skip this step.

However, if that’s not the reason, is it because your company suffered an attack lately? You will have to think about prioritizing certain areas if that’s the case.

For example, if threat actors are trying to steal certain documents from HR, you’ll need to establish role-based access control in that department first, then move to other areas.

3. Design Roles

How many employees does your company have? You can rest easy knowing you won’t have to assign a unique role for each one. You’ll have to figure out how many roles you need, depending on the job description of your employees.

At the same time, there should be roles within roles. Let’s say you have people in IT in charge of network security. Great! They get that role, meaning they can deal with any issues with the hardware and software there.

However, that doesn’t mean they all have the same permissions – meaning they need different roles within their network security role. That same logic applies to all departments.

4. Explain PoLP to Employees

It’s difficult to explain new ideas to employees, though that doesn’t mean it’s not necessary. Understanding PoLP (short for Principle of Least Privilege, also known as the Least-privilege Principle) is mandatory to work within an RBAC environment.

What’s the easiest way to explain PoLP? Take a moment to tell everyone it’s not about privilege but access. People won’t lose any power within the company. They’ll have to request authorization for certain actions and permission to access certain network areas. That’s it!

Make sure you mention how advantageous this is for cybersecurity. People will face fewer cyberattacks if PoLP is in place. That bit of information may help people accept the change.

5. Implement RBAC

At this point, you’re probably all too familiar with RBAC and what you have to do moving forward. However, we want to give you a final piece of advice before implementation takes place.

Avoid doing a complete overhaul; implement RBAC in segments instead. In other words, choose the best area to deploy your RBAC approach, see how it works, then move to another area, and so on.

Why is a segmented implementation necessary? Because you don’t know whether you’ll improve your network or brick it in one swift motion. You also don’t know how employees will react to this new system.

We recommend starting with a small department. After that, move on to a bigger one.

6. Solve Issues as They Surface

Role-based access control is a complex mechanism that improves your company’s cybersecurity – but it can also increase the amount of trouble people have accessing your network and the different segments within it.

In other words, you’ll have to be in damage control mode for a while until everyone understands how RBAC works – and their role within the company. Technical issues could be possible (as they often are during the early stages of implementation), though that doesn’t mean you’ll face them for sure.

People having issues with RBAC is more likely than software or hardware clashing with your new security strategy – that’s why it’s important to check how employees are doing.

7. Check How Employees Are Dealing With PoLP

Implementing the Privilege of Least Principle is a great way to keep people from hurting your company. It prevents threat actors from accessing sensitive areas as well as helps employees not touch things they shouldn’t.

It also makes everything more confusing for employees, especially if they’re not used to dealing with authorizations and similar mechanisms. It’s important to check up on everyone when you start implementing RBAC company-wide. That way, you can help anyone with any issues – and prevent employees from resisting change as you do.

New ways of doing things can create plenty of trouble – but that’s nothing a new policy and a few guidelines can’t fix.

8. Create an RBAC Policy (That’s Easy To Follow)

Employees often have a hard time facing changes, especially when they’re overhaul-type big kinds of changes. That doesn’t mean you can’t ease them into the transition. Slowly implementing this new security model helps everyone adapt to it, though that’s not the only thing you should do.

You need to create an RBAC policy that explains the new changes – and how to deal with them.

Employees may react the wrong way if they stop having access to certain areas: they may feel as if they did something wrong or are getting punished. Others will get frustrated because they don’t have access to places they feel they should be available to access.

That’s why releasing a policy and guidelines is a must.

9. Audit RBAC Roles Regularly

You have gone through this list and have deployed role-based access control properly. Congratulations! Does that mean you can lay back and rest? Not at all!

Company roles are fluid. They change all the time. At the same time, the place people occupy in your company changes all the time: some get promoted while others get fired.

That means you have to audit the roles regularly. It’s not an everyday thing, though it should be on your quarterly schedule at least (though you should act immediately if someone gets fired or promoted).

Last but not least, you should also have to pay attention to cybersecurity. Are the new roles increasing or decreasing the chance of a successful cyberattack? Figure out how to move forward – and do so!


Role-based access control can help your company reduce its attack surface and become more efficient in multiple areas. A good RBAC implementation is key: designing the blueprint, assigning roles, and auditing after the fact are all necessary steps to make this overhaul happen smoothly. Employees take time to get used to this new approach, so it’s a good idea to implement it slowly. If you need assistance with implementing RBAC in your business, U.S. Cybersecurity has experts standing by to help.

Herman McCargo

Herman is a Microsoft Certified Security Engineer and Cybersecurity Specialist. He’s been in the technology field for over 20 years and has expertise working with the most critical technology infrastructures. He has a deep understanding of cyber risks, threat mitigation and prevention, and overseeing infrastructure.