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The Challenges of Managing Permissions with Role-Based Access Control (RBAC)


12 minutes reading


Role-Based Access Control (RBAC) aims to simplify managing permissions, but it can lead to complex challenges. From role explosion and permission creep to maintenance headaches, this blog post delves into the real issues of RBAC. Discover the intricacies and pitfalls that come with keeping permissions in check and learn what makes managing access in a dynamic environment so tricky.

Have you ever wondered how seemingly straightforward Role-Based Access Control (RBAC) can lead to tangled webs of permissions and unforeseen security risks?

In this blog post, we will delve into the specific issues associated with managing permissions using RBAC in a rapidly changing organizational landscape.

Admin juggling roles

Admin juggling roles

RBAC Overview

Role-Based Access Control (RBAC) is a foundational approach to managing permissions within an organization.

A role is a set of permissions or access rights that are assigned to users based on their job functions or responsibilities within an organization.

Illustrates a user granted with the 'Customer CRM' role, providing access to customers in the CRM app.

Illustrates a user granted with the 'Customer CRM' role, providing access to customers in the CRM app.

By assigning roles to users based on their job functions, RBAC aims to simplify the process of granting access to resources and applications.

Illustrates users assigned to some roles.

Illustrates users assigned to some roles.

Role Engineering

Role engineering is the process of defining and maintaining roles.

The goal of role engineering is to create roles that align with the business's functional needs, ensuring that users have the appropriate access to carry out their responsibilities effectively. This process involves a meticulous understanding of every permission across all applications, then mapping these permissions to roles based on specific business and job requirements.

Role engineering tries to balance operational efficiency with security by ensuring that roles are neither too permissive nor too restrictive. The challenge lies in navigating the complexity of evolving business needs, maintaining clarity in roles, and minimizing security risks, all while fostering productivity.

However, as businesses expand and technology evolves, the static nature of RBAC can quickly become a stumbling block in dynamic business environments. Frequent application changes require constant role engineering, often resulting in role explosion, permission creep, and administrative burden. These factors can create inconsistencies, increase security risks, and complicate compliance.

Challenges in Defining Roles

Defining roles might seem like a straightforward task - just map out business or job functions and assign the necessary permissions, right? However, this seemingly simple process can quickly become a complex labyrinth, with each turn leading to new challenges.

One of the biggest challenges is defining roles that strike the right balance between security and usability. Roles should provide just enough access for users to perform their tasks without compromising sensitive information. However, determining this balance can be tricky, especially as job functions evolve and overlap.

Role creation often involves input from multiple stakeholders, including business leaders, IT teams, and compliance officers. Each group brings its own perspective on what permissions are necessary, leading to complex negotiations and, at times, conflicting priorities. Achieving consensus on role definitions can be a lengthy process, delaying implementation and potentially impacting productivity.

Overall, defining roles in RBAC requires a deep understanding of business processes, a strong grasp of security principles, and the ability to navigate complex organizational dynamics. Without careful consideration, the challenges in role creation can lead to an RBAC system that is either too rigid or too permissive, compromising both efficiency and security.

Maintenance complexity

While creating roles is challenging enough, the real test comes with maintenance. Keeping roles relevant and accurate as organizations evolve requires constant vigilance, and the complexity in maintenance can quickly spiral out of control.

Role Documentation

One of the major obstacles in RBAC maintenance is managing clear and consistent documentation. As roles proliferate, the task of keeping track of each role's purpose, permissions, and changes becomes daunting. This documentation is critical for understanding who has access to what and why, and for enabling users to find and request access on their own through a self-service portal. However, maintaining it across numerous roles can be like trying to juggle spinning plates. One misstep, and the entire system's integrity could be at risk.

Creating documentation that translates a role's actual function and the permissions it grants into clear, user-friendly language is particularly challenging. Technical jargon often doesn't align with the way users understand their job functions, leading to confusion and misinterpretation. It requires careful effort to break down complex roles into terms that users can easily grasp, ensuring they know exactly what each role provides and how it connects to their work.

High Maintenance

High maintenance overhead is another key issue. Updating role definitions to match evolving business needs requires considerable effort and resources. Each update demands a thorough review to ensure that permissions are correct, compliant with security policies, and in line with the organization's current structure. This overhead can lead to delays in implementing changes, affecting productivity and potentially compromising security.


The challenge grows with the sheer volume of roles that need to be managed. As organizations expand and diversify, the number of roles tends to increase, creating a cascade effect of additional maintenance tasks. Each role update involves coordination between IT, business units, and compliance teams, adding layers of complexity to the process.

Modifying existing roles

As roles in RBAC evolve with changing business needs, users can end up with permissions they don't need. This happens when permissions are added to existing roles and applied on members, leading to "permission creep." It not only poses a security risk but also makes audits more complex.

Static Nature of RBAC

In an ideal world, roles would remain consistent, with clear definitions and unchanging responsibilities. However, the reality is far more fluid. As organizations grow, restructure, and adopt new technologies, the rigid structure of RBAC often struggles to keep up.

The static nature of RBAC means that roles, once defined, don't easily adapt to changing circumstances. This inflexibility requires manual intervention whenever roles need to be updated or new roles created. The process can be time-consuming and prone to human error, leading to delays in granting access and, in some cases, security vulnerabilities due to outdated permissions.

Moreover, the static approach can hinder organizational agility. When business needs shift, roles should ideally evolve in tandem. However, the rigid framework of RBAC often necessitates lengthy approval processes and complex redefinitions, slowing down the ability to respond to changing demands. This lack of adaptability can create bottlenecks, impacting productivity and collaboration.

Role Explosion

Role Explosion refers to the rapid growth in the number of roles as organizations expand. This often occurs because it's easy to create new roles but rarely convenient to remove old ones. As companies grow, add new business units, or adopt new applications, the number of roles can increase exponentially, leading to a tangled web of permissions.

The tendency to continually add roles without retiring outdated ones creates a cluttered RBAC environment. This role accumulation complicates managing permissions, making it harder to maintain a clear structure and causing overlap between roles. It can also lead to permission creep, where users inadvertently retain more access than necessary, increasing security risks.

Role explosion presents a significant challenge for RBAC systems, requiring organizations to adopt proactive strategies to keep the number of roles in check. Regular audits, clear documentation, and a streamlined process for role creation and retirement are key to preventing role explosion from spiraling out of control.

Tangled web of permissions illustration

Tangled web of permissions illustration

Permission Creep

Permission creep is the silent invader, often unnoticed until it starts causing real damage. This phenomenon occurs when users gradually accumulate more permissions than they need, usually because roles aren't regularly audited or old permissions aren't properly revoked. As users take on new roles or responsibilities, they tend to retain their previous permissions, leading to a buildup of unnecessary access rights.

The danger with permission creep is that it undermines the very essence of RBAC: controlled and appropriate access. When users have more permissions than their job functions require, it creates security vulnerabilities. Excessive permissions increase the risk of data breaches, unauthorized access, or accidental data loss. It's a scenario where a seemingly small oversight can lead to significant consequences.

Permission creep also complicates compliance and audit efforts. When users hold onto outdated permissions, tracking and documenting who has access to what becomes increasingly complex. This can trigger red flags during audits and complicate compliance with regulations, leading to costly remediation efforts.

User Experience

User experience often takes a hit when roles become overly complex. Picture this: a user needs access to an application to perform a critical task, but the process of requesting and obtaining that access feels like navigating a labyrinth with no clear exit signs. This is the reality for many users when roles are ambiguous, documentation is unclear, and the path to permission approval is filled with hurdles, causing frustration and impacts performance.

Roles can cause significant confusion for users. When there are hunders if not thousands, of roles with overlapping permissions, it's easy to get lost in the maze. Users might not know which role to request, leading to a game of guesswork that can delay their ability to get work done. The more complex the hierarchy, the more time users spend chasing down the right permissions instead of focusing on their tasks.

Clear documentation is essential, but when it's lacking, users are left in the dark, unsure of how to find what they need. This lack of clarity can lead to repetitive requests for access, burdening IT teams and creating bottlenecks in the approval process. It's like trying to assemble a puzzle without the picture on the box—confusion reigns, and frustration builds.

Delays in obtaining permissions can also stem from the ambiguity in role definitions. When roles aren't clearly defined, it slows down the entire approval process. Each request might require extensive verification, approval from multiple stakeholders, and even role re-engineering if the existing roles don't align with the current needs. This complexity extends to adding new applications or adjusting existing ones, as any change requires a reassessment of roles and permissions.

All these factors contribute to a less-than-ideal user experience. Delays in obtaining permissions mean delayed productivity, and a confusing process can erode user confidence in the system. To improve the user experience, organizations must streamline the process to minimize delays by raising clarity and accuracy so users can focus on what matters most: their work.

Future of Access Management

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is revolutionizing access management by simplifying the way users request permissions. Instead of manually navigating complex role-based hierarchies, users can describe what they need in simple, natural language, and AI systems can instantly identify the appropriate permissions. This shift eliminates the frustration of getting lost in a maze of thousands of roles, reducing confusion caused by outdated or unclear documentation.

The secret to AI's effectiveness lies in its ability to analyze vast amounts of data, identifying patterns and trends in user roles, permissions, and access requests. Machine Learning (ML), a key component of AI, learns from historical data, enabling it to predict which roles are typically required for specific job functions. This predictive capability allows organizations to adjust to changing access needs with greater agility, ensuring that users have the right permissions at the right time.

AI-based systems like AccessBot make immediate and accurate recommendations by examining previous conversations, user job functions, and common permissions for similar roles. This data-driven approach reduces ambiguity and speeds up the access approval process, leading to higher user satisfaction. Users can get the access they need without the hassle of digging through complex role structures, enhancing productivity and minimizing security risks.

Time-based access controls, automatically revoking permissions after a set period. This feature ensures users don't retain access longer than necessary, adding an extra layer of security. Since the access request process is now streamlined, users can easily re-request permissions when needed, reducing the administrative burden and eliminating permission creep.

Even in organizations using traditional Role-Based Access Control (RBAC), AI can integrate seamlessly to grant roles while offering additional flexibility by granting direct access at the resource level when required. This flexibility is particularly beneficial in dynamic environments where roles are in constant flux, providing a more adaptive and user-friendly approach to access management.

Overall, AI and ML are transforming access management by simplifying the user experience, increasing efficiency, and enhancing security. These technologies offer a smarter way to manage permissions, paving the way for a more responsive and adaptable access control system.


In summary, managing permissions with RBAC comes with a unique set of challenges, including role engineering, maintenance complexity, static structures, role explosion, permission creep, and impact on user experiences. Each of these issues can create hurdles in maintaining security and efficiency in a rapidly evolving organizational landscape.

A key takeaway is the need for proactive strategies to maintain a balanced and scalable RBAC system. This involves regular audits, clear role documentation, and streamlined processes for role creation and retirement. Additionally, the integration of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) can simplify access management by allowing users to request permissions using natural language and enhancing the ability to adapt to changing needs.

Ultimately, the success of RBAC depends on achieving a harmonious balance between security and usability. The adoption of AI-driven systems can significantly improve user experience, reduce administrative burden, and bolster security by dynamically adjusting access permissions. By embracing these innovative solutions, organizations can ensure that RBAC remains effective, flexible, and aligned with their evolving needs.