Denormalize Access Control

Access control is both immensely useful and incredibly broken.

Access control, or the ability to constrain access to data and programs in a shared system is the only way that we, as users of shared systems, can maintain our identities, personal security, and privacy. Shared systems include: databases, file servers, social networking sites, virtualized computing systems, vendor accounts, control panels, management tools, and so forth all need robust, flexible, granular, and scalable access control tools.

Contemporary access control tools--access control lists (ACL,) and access control groups--indeed the entire conceptual framework for managing access to data and resources, don't work. From a theoretical practice, ACLs that express a relationship between users or groups of users and data or resources, represent a parsimonious solution to the "access control problem:" if properly deployed only those with access grants will have access to a given resource.

In practice these these kinds of relationships do not work. Typically relationships between data and users is rich and complex and different users need to be able to do different things with different resources. Some users need "read only" access, others need partial read access, some need read and write access but only to a subset of a resource. While ACL systems can impose these kinds of restrictions, the access control abscration doesn't match the data abstraction or the real-world relationships that it supposedly reflects.

Compounding this problem are two important factors:

  1. Access control needs change over time in response to social and cultural shifts among the users and providers of these resources.
  2. There are too many pieces of information or resources in any potential shared system to allocate access on a per-object or per-resource basis, and the volume of objects and resources is only increasing.

Often many objects or resources have the same or similar access control patterns, which leads to the "group" abstraction. Groups make it possible to describe a specific access control pattern that apply to a number of objects, and connect this pattern with specific resources.

Conceptual deficiencies:

  • There's a volume problem. Access control data represents a many-to-many-to-many relationship. There are many different users and (nested) groups, many different kinds of access controls that systems can grant, and many different (nested) resources. This would be unmanageably complex without the possibility for nesting, but nesting means that the relationships between resources and between groups and users are also important. With the possibility for nesting access control is impossible.

  • ACLs and group-based access control don't account for the fact that access must be constantly evolving, and current systems don't contain support for ongoing maintenance. (we need background threads that go through and validate access control consistency.) Also all access control grants must have some capacity for automatic expiration.

  • Access control requirements and possibilities shift as data becomes more or less structured, and as data use patterns change. The same conceptual framework that works well for access control in the context of a the data stored in a relational database, doesn't work so when the data in question is a word processing document, an email folder, or a spread sheet.

    The fewer people that need access to a single piece of data, the easier the access control system can be. While this seems self evident, it also means that access control systems are difficult to test in the really large complex systems in which they're used.

  • Group-based access control systems, in effect, normalize data about access control, in an effort to speed up data access times. While this performance is welcome, in most cases granting access via groups leads to an overly liberal distribution of access control rights. At once, its too difficult to understand "who has access to what" and too easy to add people to groups that give them more access than they need.

So the solution:

  1. Denormalize all access control data,
  2. don't grant access to groups, and
  3. forbid inheritance.

This is totally counter to the state of the art. In most ways, normalized access control data, with role/group-based access control, and complex inheritance are the gold standard. Why would it work?

  • If you have a piece of data, you will always be able to determine who has access to data, without needing to do another look-up.

  • If you can deactivate credentials, then a background process can go through and remove access without causing a large security problem. (For partial removes, you would freeze an account, let the background process modify access control and then unfreeze the account.)

    The down side is that, potentially, in a large system, it may take a rather long time for access grants to propagate to users. Locking user accounts makes the system secure/viable, but doesn't make the process any more quick.

    As an added bonus, these processes could probably be independent and wouldn't require any sort of shared state or lock, which means many such operation could run in parallel, and they could stop and restart at will.

  • The inheritance option should be fuzzy. Some sort of "bucket-based" access control should be possible, if there's a lot of data with the same access control rules and users.

    Once things get more complex, buckets are the wrong metaphor, you should use granular controls everywhere.


  • Denormalization might fix the problems with ACLs and permissions systems, but it doesn't fix the problems with distributed identity management.

    As a counterpoint, this seems like a cryptography management problem.

  • Storing access control information with data means that it's difficult to take a user and return a list of what these credentials have access to.

    In truth, centralized ACL systems are subject to this flaw as well.

  • A huge part of the problem with centralized ACL derives from nesting, and the fact that we tend to model/organize data in tree-like structures, that often run counter to the organization of access control rights. As a result access control tools must be arbitrary.

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