Policy-based access control defined

Policy-based access control (PBAC) is an access control strategy that combines role-based access privileges and object attributes. Access to network resources is documented and controlled via written policies.

PBAC determines user privileges based on business roles but also allows administrators to secure resources via granular attribute-based controls. This makes it a flexible alternative to pure role-based access controls and attribute-based controls.

This article will introduce policy-based access systems. We will learn:

  • How PBAC works and implementation strategies.
  • PBAC's benefits and the challenges associated with its use.
  • How PBAC compares with other access strategies.

How policy-based access control works?

How policy-based access control works

PBAC brings two different access control concepts together: role-based privileges and attribute-based policies.

Role-based profiles

Network users have a profile linked to their business role. Roles have different privileges to access, read, write, and transfer data.

Attribute-based policies

Policies are coded in XACML but represented as text descriptions. Attributes are aspects of apps or data that affect user access. Profiles can be simple or more complex. Administrators can use them to control access according to identity, location, time, and many other attributes.

Attributes are at the core of PBAC. Policy-based access technologies use a range of properties to determine access to documents, databases, or applications. Examples of attributes include:

  • Subject attributes — information about the user accessing resources. This could include name, department, job role, or project membership.
  • Object attributes — information about the app or file. This could include the file type, size, and location.
  • Action attributes — information about allowable actions for specific subjects. This could include commands like read, delete, write, transfer, or copy.
  • Environment attributes — contextual information about how users can access the resource. This could include time of access, geographical location, or device type.

Administrators can link together these attributes in logical policies for each role and resource. Beneath the hood, policies apply Boolean logic to determine access. Users see a clear description of who can access the resource and the conditions under which access is permitted.

Benefits of policy-based access control

Benefits of policy-based access control include:

Improved security

Managing access can be extremely detailed. Granular controls allow companies to customize data security strategies. Small subsets of users can change or delete high-value information. But the same data can be viewable to larger communities.

Simplified compliance

PBAC's flexibility aids compliance. Administrators can create policies based on regulations like HIPAA or PCI-DSS. They can protect specific data entries and objects. Admins can guard both on-premises and cloud-hosted assets.

Centralized management

Security teams can manage policies centrally and distribute them to all users and resources. Central policy databases make it easy to change access strategies. They also make auditing access systems simpler.


Flexible access policies change rapidly as user communities expand or new apps come online. Companies can grow smoothly while extending access controls.

Challenges of policy-based access control

Challenges associated with policy-based access controls include:

Policy complexity

PBAC can become complex when applied over many locations and IT systems. Administrators must ensure every user has the correct privileges. This requires careful planning.

Resistance to change

Changing policies can be difficult. Major changes affect user access for large numbers of employees. Administrators often choose workarounds instead of strategic policy updates.

Training and awareness 

Employees need to know what policies are in operation. Poorly worded policies confuse users. This can lead to security breakdown if employees seek alternative access routes when they are not granted access.

How to implement PBAC?

Before putting policy-based access controls in place, administrators must model user roles and application usage. PBAC aims to match user roles with attributes required to use resources safely.

Each role should have a set of privileges for relevant resources. Admins can then add granular policy controls to customize access according to security needs.

For example, it may be important to know how many employees work remotely. If remote work is common, admins might add VPN usage or multi-factor authentication as required attributes.

Organizations should build PBAC systems slowly and consult with employees to understand their requirements. Only add controls that meet compliance needs and counter critical cybersecurity threats.

PBAC use cases

PBAC is most effective where organizations need to protect sensitive data while allowing flexible working.

The healthcare industry is a good example. PBAC systems allow health providers to separate different clinics or departments. Specialists in a radiography department may have access to patient scans. But the system can deny access to records in other clinical areas.

Healthcare policies can be very specific. Access control policies could state that physicians "can access patient records within working hours, providing records are related to the professional's area of specialty". This helps to safeguard privacy and meet HIPAA requirements.

Banks or insurers may also use a PBAC system in their security model. For instance, branch employees may have "access to client financial information in their branch" but not to the bank's wider client databases.

PBAC helps financial organizations meet compliance regulations. It is also a sound risk management measure that limits the risk of data breaches and other information security incidents.

Is PBAC the same as ABAC?

PBAC and attribute-based access control (ABAC) are very similar approaches to controlling access. Both security models regulate access with object and user attributes. They are both highly flexible and easy to use. But there is one important difference.

  • Policy-based access control describes access rules in text-based policies.
  • Attribute-based access control applies controls in logical code. These attributes are not expressed as policies, and here less intelligible to network users.

PBAC is more visible to administrative teams and departmental managers. The use of plain text makes it easier to share policies and discuss access requirements. This also makes it easier to make changes and train employees to use access systems securely.

PBAC vs. role-based access control (RBAC)

Policy-based access control and ABAC are alternatives to role-based access controls.


Creates policies for each organizational role. Every role has specific access permissions. Users can gain access to resources they need. But a well-designed role-based access control system will restrict access to all other network assets.


Uses role-based profiles. But it combines roles with contextual attribute-based controls. RBAC applies broad restrictions with little flexibility. PBAC allows administrators to create granular access systems that reach down to individual files.

Policy-based access control models combine the functions of role-based and attribute-based controls. Plain text policies set access requirements for network resources. These policies apply to roles or authorized users. They can feature granular controls based on time, location, and user actions.