Harnessing the Power of Data Classification and Attribute-Based Access Control (ABAC)

In our data-driven world, many organizations face the challenge of protecting the handling and distribution of sensitive information while still allowing authorized individuals to access and utilize data to perform their work.

Combining two technology components can solve this challenge: data classification and attribute-based access control (ABAC). Data classification involves categorizing data based on its sensitivity and value, while ABAC is a dynamic access control model that uses attributes to define and enforce access policies.

Data Classification: identify, classify, and control information.

Data classification is the process of organizing and categorizing data based on predefined criteria such as sensitivity, value, regulatory requirements, or business impact. By classifying data, organizations gain a deeper understanding of the nature and importance of their information assets, allowing them to allocate appropriate security measures and access controls.

The data classification process involves assigning protective markings (sometimes called sensitivity labels, tags, or labels) to files, indicating the level of sensitivity or confidentiality of the information within the file. For example, a simple classification scheme might include labels such as "public," "internal," "confidential," or "highly confidential."

A classification marking (say ‘Confidential’) is added visibly to documents and into the metadata of each file. Marking a file’s metadata ensures the classification travels WITH the file, so every system that handles the information can manage it appropriately and efficiently. The metadata classification that moves with a file also enables fast, flexible integration with ABAC and any other downstream system already in your organization’s security portfolio, such as cryptography, CASB, DLP, cross domain solutions, other gateways, and firewalls.

Data classification markings are an easy step for organizations to implement appropriate information handling controls and strengthen existing security infrastructure, ensuring compliance with data protection regulations, improving the security consciousness of its culture, and establishing a strong base for a data-centric zero trust architecture.

Attribute-Based Access Control (ABAC): Dynamic and Granular Access Control

Attribute-Based Access Control (ABAC) is an access control model that determines access rights to data based on attributes associated with the user, the information, and the environmental context. ABAC enables more dynamic and granular control over access decisions, considering multiple factors beyond simple user roles or permissions of role- based access control.

In ABAC, attributes define various characteristics related to users, resources, and the context in which access needs to occur. Examples of attributes include user roles, department affiliations, time of day, location, device type, data classifications, and more. By combining and evaluating attributes, organizations may define attribute-based access control policies to enforce fine-grained access control rules, enabling nuanced and flexible security measures that improve sensitive information handling across and beyond network boundaries.

Data Classification and ABAC: Strengthening Data Security and Access Control

Combining data classification and attribute-based access controls creates a robust data protection and access control framework. Here's how they work together:

  1. Policy definition and enforcement. Data classification labels can serve as attributes in ABAC policies. Incorporating data classification labels as part of the access control decision process is a valuable capability that allows organizations to define and enforce policies that align with the data's sensitivity, handling requirements, and compliance guidelines. For example, a policy might require that only users with a specific security clearance (attribute) or citizenship (attribute) may access data classified as "highly confidential."
  2. Dynamic adaptability. ABAC allows access decisions to adapt dynamically based on changing attributes. In the context of data classification, this means that if the classification of a file type changes, for example, from "internal" to "confidential," the associated access control policies will automatically adjust to reflect the new classification. This flexibility ensures appropriate levels of protection are consistently applied to information as its sensitivity evolves.
  3. User contextual awareness. By incorporating additional attributes linked to user context, such as location, time, or device type, ABAC can enhance access control based on the specific circumstances of an access request. For instance, a policy might allow a user with the appropriate classification clearance to access confidential data only when connected to the organization's internal network, thus mitigating risks associated with external connections.
  4. Audit and compliance. The combination of data classification and ABAC provides a robust foundation for auditing access to sensitive data. By logging and monitoring access requests, organizations can ensure compliance with regulatory requirements, detect potential policy violations, and investigate anomalies.

As outlined above, the value of rich metadata embedded within an information asset (file type) integrates with the ABAC to deliver a data-centric zero trust model and provides similar control capabilities for transmission or transfer policies.