How Cedar authorization works

Each time a user of your application wants to perform an action on a protected resource, the application needs to invoke the Cedar authorization engine (or authorizer, for short) to check if this request is allowed. The authorizer considers the request against the application’s store of policies in order to make a decision, Allow or Deny. This topic discusses how the Cedar authorizer decides the answer to a particular request.

Request creation

A Cedar authorization request asks the question “Can this principal take this action on this resource in this context?”. More formally, an authorization request has four parts, abbreviated PARC:

  • P is the principal,
  • A is the action,
  • R is the resource, and
  • C is the request context.

P, A, and R are entity references, while C is a record.

Conceptually, you should imagine that the authorizer is able to consider all of your application’s policies and entity data while evaluating a request. As a practical matter, making all policies and entity data available might be too difficult or too expensive. In that case, your application needs to determine which policies and entity data are relevant to properly handling the request.

Request authorization

Given an authorization request, Cedar’s authorizer returns Allow if the request is granted or Deny if it is rejected, along with some diagnostics. How does it make this decision?


First, the authorizer evaluates each of the policies to determine if the policy satisfies the request. More details about evaluation follow, but in summary, know that the evaluator can return:

  • true, when the policy satisfies the request;
  • false, when the policy does not satisfy the request; or
  • error, when there is an error when evaluating the policy on the request data.

After evaluating each policy, the authorizer combines the results to make an authorization decision. It makes its decision by applying the following rules:

  1. If any forbid policy evaluates to true, then the final result is Deny.

  2. Else, if any permit policy evaluates to true, then the final result is Allow.

  3. Otherwise (i.e., no policy is satisfied), the final result is Deny.

The authorizer returns an authorization response, which includes its decision along with some diagnostics. These diagnostics include the determining policies and any error conditions. If the decision is Allow, the determining policies are the permit policies that satisfy the request (rule 2). Otherwise, the determining policies are the forbid policies, if any, that satisfy the request (rule 1). If the decision is Deny because no policies were satisfied (rule 3), then the list of determining policies is empty. Whatever the final result, if the evaluation of any policies resulted in error, then the IDs of the erroneous policies are included in the diagnostics, too, along with the particulars of the errors.


Cedar’s authorization algorithm has three useful properties:

  1. default deny: no request is authorized (decision Allow) unless there is a specific permit policy that grants it; by default, the decision is Deny.
  2. forbid overrides permit: even if a permit policy is satisfied, any satisfied forbid policy overrides it, producing a Deny decision.
  3. skip on error: if a policy’s evaluation returns error, the policy does not factor into the authorization response; it is skipped.

Why was Cedar’s authorization algorithm designed to satisfy these properties? The first two properties make Cedar policies easier to understand. Since permit policies are the only way access is granted, readers just have to understand what each policy says, not what it doesn’t. Because forbid policies always deny access, readers can understand them independently of any permit policies created now or in the future; forbid policies effectively define permission “guardrails” that permit policies cannot cross.

The reasoning for the skip-on-error property is more involved. An alternative authorization algorithm we considered would be to Deny a request when any policy evaluation exhibits an error. While this might sound good at first, deny-on-error raises concerns of safety. An application that was working fine with 100 policies might suddenly start denying all requests if the 101st policy has an error. Skip-on-error avoids this dramatic failure mode, and is more flexible: applications can always choose to look at the authorization response’s diagnostics and take a different decision if an evaluated policy produces errors. For more information, see this blog post written by one of the Cedar designers.

Policy evaluation

As just discussed, to reach its decision the Cedar authorizer’s algorithm evaluates a request PARC against each policy it is given. Evaluation returns whether or not the policy is satisfied by the request (true/false), or whether an error occurred during evaluation (error). How does evaluation work?

Expression evaluation

The key component of policy evaluation is expression evaluation. Each constraint in the policy scope is an expression. Each when clause also contains an expression, as does each unless clause. Evaluating a policy requires evaluating its constituent expressions. Example expressions include resource.tags.contains("private"), action == Action::"viewPhoto", principal in Team::"admin", and resource in principal.account.

As with a typical programming language, evaluating an expression simplifies, or “executes”, the expression until no further simplification is possible. The final result is either a Cedar value – like true, 1, User::"Alice", or "blue" – or it is an error. Evaluating an expression with no variables is straightforward. The expression 2+2 evaluates to 4. Expression Action::"viewPhoto" == Action::"viewPhoto" evaluates to true. Expression if false then "blue" else "green" evaluates to "green". See here for complete descriptions of the various operators you can use in Cedar expressions.

What about expressions that have variables principal, action, resource, and context in them? To evaluate such expressions the Cedar authorizer first binds any variables that appear in the expressions to values of the appropriate type. Then the authorizer evaluates the expressions with those values in place of the variables.

For example, consider the expression action == Action::"viewPhoto". If the authorizer binds the action variable to the entity Action::"viewPhoto", then the result is true. That’s because replacing action with Action::"viewPhoto" gives expression Action::"viewPhoto" == Action::"viewPhoto" which is obviously true.

As another example, consider the expression resource.tags.contains("Private"). If the authorizer binds the resource variable to the entity Photo::"vacation94.jpg" we get Photo::"vacation94.jpg".tags.contains("Private"). Evaluating further, the authorizer must look up Photo::"vacation94.jpg" in the provided entities data, and then extract its tags attribute. If that attribute contains a set with the string "Private" in it, the result is true; if it’s a set without "Private" the result is false. Otherwise tags is either not a valid attribute or contains a non-set, and Cedar generates an error.

Policy satisfaction

Determining whether a policy satisfies a request is a straightforward use of expression evaluation. To explain it, let’s introduce some notation. For a policy c:

  • Principal(c) is the constraint involving the principal in c’s policy scope. If there is no constraint on principal, then Principal(c) is true.
  • Action(c) is the constraint involving action in c’s policy scope. If there is no constraint on action, then Action(c) is true.
  • Resource(c) is the constraint involving resource in c’s policy scope. If there is no constraint on resource, then Resource(c) is true.
  • Conds(c) is the list of when and unless expressions in c.

Here’s how the Cedar authorizer evaluates a policy c with respect to a PARC request. First, the authorizer tests whether c matches the request, as follows:

  1. Bind principal to P in expression Principal(c) and evaluate it
  2. Bind action to A in expression Action(c) and evaluate it
  3. Bind resource to R in expression Resource(c) and evaluate it

If all three steps evaluate to true, then c matches the request. Otherwise it does not. (Cedar’s design ensures that none of these three steps can possibly evaluate to error.)

If c matches the request, the authorizer evaluates the request’s conditions Conds(c) in order. The authorizer binds the principal, action, resource, and context variables to the PARC values when we do so. If all of the when conditions evaluate to true, and all of the unless conditions evaluate to false, then policy c satisfies the request, and the final evaluation result is true. If evaluating any condition expression yields error then policy evaluation halts at that point (any remaining conditions are skipped), and error is returned as the final result. Otherwise, false is returned.

Detailed Example

To illustrate policy evaluation, consider whether a set of four policies authorizes the following request: “Can the user jane perform the action viewPhoto on the photo vacation.jpg?” Precisely, the request is:

  • P = User::"jane"
  • A = Action::"viewPhoto"
  • R = Photo::"vacation.jpg"
  • C = {} (the empty record)

Assume that the entities data includes the following details:

  • Entity User::"jane" is a member of Group::"kevinsFriends"
  • Entity Photo::"vacation.jpg" has the following attributes:
    • .owner is User::"kevin"
    • .tags is ["Private","Work"] (i.e., a set containing the strings "Private" and "Work")

The Cedar authorizer evaluates each of the four policies against this request.

  • P1 – Jane can perform any action on photo vacation.jpg.

    permit ( 
        principal == User::"jane", 
        resource == Photo::"vacation.jpg"

    This policy is satisfied.

    • Principal in P1 is principal == User::"jane", so after binding principal to User::"jane" (the P in the request), the expression evaluates to true.
    • Action in P1 is simply true since there is no action constraint.
    • Resource in P1 is resource == Photo::"vacation.jpg", so after binding resource to Photo::"vacation.jpg" (the R in the request), the expression evaluates to true.
    • Cond(c) is empty, so evaluates trivially to true.
  • P2 – A member of group kevinFriends can view any of Kevin’s photos when they are tagged Holiday

    permit (
        principal in UserGroup::"kevinFriends",
        action == Action::"viewPhoto",
    when {

    This policy is not satisfied. While it matches the request, its condition evaluates to false.

    • Principal in P2 is principal in UserGroup::"kevinFriends", so after binding principal to User::"jane" (the P in the request), the expression evaluates to true because User::"jane" is a member of Group::"kevinsFriends"
    • Action in P2 is action == Action::"viewPhoto", so after binding action to Action::"viewPhoto" the expression evaluates to true
    • Resource in P2 is simply true since there is no resource constraint
    • Cond(c) in P2 is the list containing when expression resource.tags.contains("Holiday"). After binding resource to Photo::"vacation.jpg" (the R in the request), the expression evaluates to false because the .tags attribute of Photo::"vacation.jpg" is ["Private","Work"], i.e., it does not contain "Holiday".
  • P3 – Users are forbidden from viewing any photos tagged Private unless they are the owner of the photo.

    forbid (
        action == Action::"viewPhoto",
    when { resource.tags.contains("Private") }
    unless { principal == resource.owner };

    This policy is satisfied.

    • The policy matches the request: principal and resource are unconstrained, and Action(c) evaluates to true because A is Action::"viewPhoto";
    • The policy’s when condition is true because the .tags attribute of Photo::"vacation.jpg" contains "Private"; and
    • The policy’s unless condition is false because the .owner attribute of Photo::"vacation.jpg" (which is User::"kevin") is not equal to P (which is User::"jane").
  • P4 – Users can perform updateTags on a resource, like a Photo or Album, when they are the owner of the resource

    permit (
        action == Action::"updateTags",
    when { principal == resource.owner };

    This policy is not satisfied.

    • The policy fails to match the request because while principal and resource are unconstrained, Action(c) evaluates to false because binding action to A yields expression Action::"viewPhoto" == Action::"updatePassword".

In sum:

  • permit policy P1 evaluates to true
  • permit policy P2 evaluates to false
  • forbid policy P3 evaluates to true
  • permit policy P4 evaluates to false

Combining these policy evaluation results, the Cedar authorizer returns a decision of Deny, where the determining policy is P3. This result follows from rule 1 of our authorization logic: “If any forbid policy evaluates to true, then the final result is Deny” (and the determining policies are the satisfied forbid policies).