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The case for entitlements

An increasing source of worry for organizations is making sure users are accessing only the functions and data they are entitled to. The recent increase in identity theft and insider threats has led organizations to focus on Entitlements Management (EM), the practice of establishing formal access controls within applications to protect sensitive functionality and information from the wrong users.

EM as a concept is nothing new. Years ago, when multi-user applications became widespread, there was a need to protect sensitive information and transactions from different types of users. It was common practice to incorporate entitlements as part of the business logic of the application itself. Experiences have proven limitations with that model and the modern approach is to externalize entitlements away from the application.

Externalized entitlements separate authorization logic from business logic, resulting in increased transparency as the entitlements are now understandable and measurable beyond the context of the application. This enables companies to review entitlement policies for completeness and accuracy against corporate standards.

Another benefit of EM is policy lifecycle management. Suppose an application presents sensitive customer information such as a Social Security Number. It is determined that only managers and senior representatives may view this data. When the application shows an SSN, a decision is made as to whether the user may view the data or default value (e.g. "XXX-XX-XXXX"). The decision takes into account the user's job title and salary grade.

Now assume the policy must be modified after the application has been put into production. The business has determined that a senior representatives in Texas may not view an SSN. This is an exceptional situation that requires another piece of information to be considered as part of the entitlement decision. If the application developers were clever, they would have put the SSN entitlement logic into a reusable component so the code needs to be changed only once.

But what if we take the example even further? Suppose that when SSNs are shown temporarily (such as in a browser window), senior representatives may view them. Only managers, however, can request SSNs on a printed display such as a report. Now the entitlement logic is split in two separate decisions based on output type. Again the business logic must be adapted.


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