As the digital revolution has transcended all that was before, we’ve realized that handling our data stores is one of the most critical tasks we have as an organization. Data has never been more important or more sensitive for businesses of all kinds. Every employee who can access the internal data and take action represents a potential risk if we don’t have the right policies.
As such, a lot of work has gone into creating complex access control systems that try to maintain order and mitigate some of the risks associated with data breaches, corruption, and more. In this article, we will discuss the latest development in the field of fine-grained access control. We’ll look at why it matters, how to use it, and why your organization needs to get on top of things today.
In this article, we will discuss:
What is Fine-Grained Access Control?
To understand the concept, let’s break down the term into two parts:
- Access Control. As the name suggests, this refers to policies and procedures that a company puts to control which people have access to specific data. A stakeholder usually has to log in or provide some other form of credentials to view, edit, or use the data. Such authentication allows the company to manage cybersecurity risk and maintain order within their systems without hamstringing those who need the data to perform their jobs.
- Fine-Grained. This term contrasts with ‘coarse-grained’ access control and refers to the level of precision and specificity applied to access control protocols. As the name suggests, fine-grained is much more selective about who can access specific data, giving you a very flexible and focused way of controlling read and edit rights.
Access control should be as simplified and automated as possible. In essence, fine-grained access control allows organizations to control which users, groups, or roles have access to specific parts of data, such as columns or rows of data. The granular control helps maintain the confidentiality, sensitivity, and usage of specific data without hamstringing those users who need that access to complete their work. By automating and simplifying the policies and fine-tuning them appropriately, the organization can focus resources on creating business value.
Why is Fine-Grained Access Control Important?
As data has become more valuable and a crucial part of any modern business, the ability to implement fine-grained access control has also become incredibly important. Here are some of the reasons why it is such a critical component:
- Confidentiality. If you are storing sensitive data, such as personal data about your customers, there are a range of regulations and compliance requirements that you must follow to protect it. We’ve also seen a significant rise in social pressure in this sphere, driven by data exposure and data leak events. Regulators are working tirelessly to hold organizations accountable for dealing with sensitive personal data effectively. Fine-grained access control provides you with the tools you need to abide by the relevant regulation and ensure that any personal information you are holding is treated with the utmost confidentiality. Only the users who need to use that data can access it, and you can know that your risk has been significantly mitigated.
- Centralized Data Storage. Data-driven businesses understand that there are many benefits (both economic and administrative) from storing data in a centralized data store, such as a data warehouse or a data lake. You can have one storage mechanism but an infinite number of different access control options that splices and parses the data for day-to-day use while benefiting from the economies of scale. Fine-grained access control allows you to accomplish this without exposing the internal data to everyone in your organization as a result. You can eliminate disparate data stores and use fine-grained access control to enforce security and privacy on your main data warehouse.
- Precision. Using a fine-grained access control mechanism gives yourself much more accuracy regarding who can access your internal data. Enabling such access offers flexibility that you just can’t get with any other methodology. Instead of relying on extensive categorizations, you can assign each data piece with its unique access control policy. As a result, if you have specific pieces of data that require special treatment, you can implement them quickly and efficiently without impacting other parts of the process. You don’t create any unnecessary bottlenecks, which compounds in value for the whole company.
- Improved Security. Implementing a fine-grained access control scheme gives you a much better chance of reducing security risks, as well as compliance risks. When your access control is granular yet clear, you can mitigate or lower security risks such as data exposure. In the event where data is breached or exposed, your potential damage may also be decreased significantly.
- Efficient Authorizations for Non-Employees. There are certain scenarios where a company wants to expose specific data to other stakeholders that aren’t internal employees. As an example, these can be partners, vendors, or customers. Such data sharing may pose serious security risks, and fine-grained access control helps you limit the scope of data shared to precisely what you want to share with third parties, reducing risks. The access can also be revoked when it is no longer required.
Those are the main reasons why fine-grained access control can be crucial for your organization and the advantages of implementing them. For any company storing and utilizing a range of different data pieces, it makes a lot of sense to take complete control of the access permissions and adapt them according to specific use cases.
Speaking of, let’s now look at some typical practical applications for such a methodology.
Common Use Cases
Your company has all its data stored in one cloud data warehouse, but you can’t grant access to an entire segment based purely on a role.
Cloud data storage makes for efficient and convenient large-scale data management, but it creates some risks in controlling who can see what. A fine-grained access control system allows you to control exactly who can see what data and under what conditions without losing any of the benefits of cloud storage. These policies, such as dynamic masking, can be dynamically adjusted according to current business circumstances and give you robust, granular access control over individual data pieces.
Your users are working remotely or from multiple locations, and you want to limit access according to context and not just user profiles.
In today’s modern world, more and more work is happening in non-traditional environments, making it difficult to maintain control over your data access protocols. Fine-grained access control measures can add extra flexibility to your policies, allowing you to grant and revoke access according to contextual information like location, time of day, and more – rather than merely being restricted to specific user profiles. For example, you may limit data access according to users’ working shifts. Another example is restricting access of certain data assets to workplace usage only and not allow users to access data on the go.
You want to control who can access data – read it, edit it, move it, or delete it.
Specific actions surrounding data carry more weight than others, such as giving someone read-only access instead of allowing editing, deletion, or other more substantial measures. With fine-grained access control, you have complete control over this entire suite of actions and can go as granular as you would like without being restricted in any way. This freedom lets you mitigate some of the risks of open databases while allowing a more comprehensive range of stakeholders to use the information.
These use cases are just mere examples of why organizations implement granular access control. The practical applications of fine-grained access controls are limitless and contextual to the organization’s security policies. You should craft the sort of access control policies that match perfectly to your company’s needs and according to the governance and security requirements. Policy setting should be done with all stakeholders involved, and organizations should implement the granular access control due to the policy.
Now let’s look at some of the principles you should be considering when creating your fine-grained access control plan.
Building a Successful Fine-Grained Access Control Plan
It can feel overwhelming when you’re first creating a fine-grained access control plan for an organization. However, it doesn’t have to be. In that case, you’ll put yourself in a great position to implement a program that not only protects your organization but enables even greater efficiency and collaboration at the same time. You can keep the following fundamental principles in mind.
- Deep understanding of your data. The first step is to ensure that you have a nuanced and sophisticated understanding of your company data. Where is sensitive data located? What regulations apply to your industry? What compliance frameworks apply? Where is your data stored across your entire data estate? Who are the data consumers? All of these questions can be used as jumping-off points to come to foundational knowledge of the data you have on hand and what needs to be done to protect it. Without this context, you’re not going to come up with a clear plan with practical application.
- Clear definitions of employee roles and what they need the data for. Following that, you need to clarify how your users use data and how that impacts the final solutions you deliver. The more detail you can get into here the better, because you don’t want to end up in a situation where your access control plan impedes company progress. The privacy controls need to be aligned with what your team needs to do their jobs. If it is not clearly defined and articulated, you’re going to run into problems down the line.
- Differentiate between use cases. Once you understand the needs of your team members, you should then make clear distinctions between different processes and use-cases that might play a role in the access control paradigm. Perhaps one use case only comes into play once a month, whereas another is a daily activity. Understanding the differences here can help you be more precise with your access control by aligning with the regular cadence of your internal procedures.
- Use the right technology. According to your current and future needs, you need to choose where you place the access restrictions. Placing them at the data infrastructure level may require much data engineering work, especially when using multiple data platforms. Your technology should also allow as much flexibility to data owners or data stewards when they apply fine-grained access control over their data.
- Regular Evaluations. The access control needs of your organization are bound to shift and change over time. Business is a constantly evolving endeavor, and as the circumstances of your company change, so should your access control plan. Suppose you are evaluating your access control policies regularly. In that case, you give yourself the chance to adapt to these changes and ensure that you’re always proactive with your cybersecurity. The goalposts are constantly moving, so don’t get complacent.
Examples of Fine-Grained Access Control
These are some of the prominent examples of fine-grained access control:
- Row-level security. In this type of access control, you limit access to specific rows in a table. Examples may be a table containing data of multiple regions, where particular users or groups require access only to particular regions.
Read more in our dedicated row-level security guide.
- Dynamic Masking. When using dynamic masking, users will get redacted or hashed data according to their permissions. For example, only HR users will be able to view employee details, and other users will get names masked when querying the table.
Read more about dynamic masking in Snowflake here.
- Limiting access through specific data clients. For example, you want to restrict data analysts from using scripting languages and restrict their use to BI tools only.
Read more about how to do this with Satori.
Implementing Fine-Grained Access Control with Satori
Satori provides a simple way to apply fine-grained access control, which can be controlled by data engineers but also by security teams and data owners. Satori provides access control decoupled from the data infrastructure itself to give you the same level of control, regardless of the data store platforms or BI tools you’re using.
That brings us to the end of our journey through the world of fine-grained access control. We hope that you better understand what it is and, more importantly, why it is a crucial component in your data security. Implementing fine-grained access control is essential for risk reduction.