Implementing Role-based Access Control (RBAC) with Express.js and SQLite

John L. Carveth

Role-based access control (RBAC) is a valuable technique for restricting access to computer resources based on a user's role within that system. Imagine an organization with multiple departments. An employee who works in shipping and recieving will need access to a "Shipping" view in an application, but has no need to access the "Expense Reports" view. RBAC facilitates rules such as this through the concept of "roles" and "permissions".

This article will cover how to implement RBAC using a backend API built with the Node.js package express.js and SQLite as a database. However the concepts presented here can be implemented with your preffered technology stack. For our SQLite implementation, we will need four tables, their schemas described below:

 (id integer primary key not null,\
      permName text unique not null,\
      dateCreated text default CURRENT_TIMESTAMP,\
      dateUpdated text default CURRENT_TIMESTAMP)

  (id integer primary key not null,\
      roleName text unique not null,\
      dateCreated text default CURRENT_TIMESTAMP,\
      dateUpdated text default CURRENT_TIMESTAMP)

  (dateCreated text default CURRENT_TIMESTAMP,\
      dateUpdated text default CURRENT_TIMESTAMP,\
      roleID integer not null,\
      permID integer not null,\
      FOREIGN KEY(roleID) REFERENCES roles(id),\
      FOREIGN KEY (permID) REFERENCES permissions(id))

  (userID integer not null,\
      roleID integer not null,\
      FOREIGN KEY (userID) REFERENCES users(rowid),\
      FOREIGN KEY (roleID) REFERENCES roles(id))

The relations between the above data should be easy to see; there exist roles and permissions, each described by an id and a name (though since our name field is unique, we could go and omit the ID). rolePerms maps created permissions to roles, whereas the userRoles table contains all role assignments for our users.

Now that we have our tables defined, let's add some default roles:

let CREATE_ROLES = 'INSERT OR IGNORE INTO roles (roleName) VALUES ('admin', 'default')';

Of course, you could instead read some default roles from a config file or environment variables, but these two static roles will do for now. The INSERT OR IGNORE query will ensure that the roles will only be created once, no matter how many times our backend service starts or stops.

Now that we have some roles created, let's create some database triggers. Triggers are actions that are performed automatically by our database system--in this case, SQLite--whenever a specified event occurs. We need three triggers. The first trigger automatically inserts an entry into the rolePerms table whenever a new permission is created, the second trigger deletes that record whenever the permissions record is deleted. This allows for our admin role to always have every permission in the system. The final trigger assigns the default role to all newly created users.

let ADMIN_ASSIGN_TRIGGER = 'CREATE TRIGGER IF NOT EXISTS admin_role_trg AFTER INSERT ON permissions BEGIN INSERT INTO rolePerms (roleID, permID) VALUES ((SELECT id FROM roles WHERE roleName = "admin"),; END;';


let USER_ROLE_TRIGGER = 'CREATE TRIGGER IF NOT EXISTS user_role_trg AFTER INSERT ON users BEGIN INSERT INTO userRoles (userID, roleID) VALUES (NEW.rowid, (SELECT id FROM roles WHERE roleName = "default")); END;';

Now that our database is properly established, we can create some functions which add our RBAC functionality. Since I was implementing RBAC into an existing Node.js project, I already had a login function which queried the SQLite DB. This was a very simple query:

SELECT users.rowid, users.* FROM users WHERE email = ?;

This SQL query was wrapped in a login() function, and called from an express route which returns a token along with the user's details. With our new RBAC system, we want to store the user's role info. We can update our query to fetch roles the user has as well:

SELECT users.rowid, users.*, userRoles.*, roles.roleName FROM users INNER JOIN roles INNER JOIN userRoles ON users.rowid = userRoles.userID AND WHERE email = ?

Of course, I am no SQL expert, so this query isn't ideal. It returns multiple rows, one for each role assigned to the user. However it is trivial to collect each role name into an array. We can then generate a token and pass off the login information back to the client.

let token = await generateToken({
    'id' : result.rowid,
    'email' :,
    'user' : result.user,
    'roles' : roles

return {
    'token' : token,
    'id' : result.rowid,
    'email' :,
    'user' : result.user

We will also need a couple of other functions in our database service class. Namely, we need functions to create and delete roles and permissions, and to create and delete associations with the proper tables rolePerms and userRoles. The implementation of these functions is straightforward and won't be covered in this blog post.

The final feature I'd like to implement is an express.js middleware that protects routes by requiring a certain permission. Implementing this will actually require two middlewares. The first, which we'll call AuthWare will check the header of an incoming response for a token. AuthWare verifies the token, and if valid, will store the token contents (including roles) within the res.locals variable.

The second middleware, RoleWare, will be created dynamically. On an incoming request, RoleWare will check res.locals for the user's roles, and will see if any of those roles have been granted the needed permission.


function middleware(req, res, next) {
    const token = request.headers['x-access-token'];
    if (token) {
        try {
            let result = verifyToken(token);
            res.locals.roles = result.roles;
            return next();
        } catch (err) {
            res.status(401).send({'success' : false, 'message' : 'Invalid token'.});
    } else {
        res.status(401).send({'success' : false, 'message' : 'No token provided.'});


export default class RoleWare {
    constructor(permission, roles) {
        this.roles = roles; // {"admin" : ["perm1", "perm2"], "default" : ["view"]}
        this.permission = permission;
        let that = this;
        return function (req, res, next) {
            let roles = res.locals.roles;
            let valid = false;
            for (let role of roles) {
                if (that.validate(role)) { // validate() simply calls this.roles[role].includes()
                    valid = true;
            if (valid) next();
            else {
                    'success' : false,
                    'message' : 'Insufficient permissions'

An important distinction is that AuthWare handles authenticating the user, whereas RoleWare is concerned with whether the user is authorized to access the requested resource.

AuthWare can be applied to a route to protect certain routes:

app.use('/api/route/', middleware);

Applying RoleWare to a route is almost as simple, though it must be added after AuthWare, since RoleWare depends upon values created by AuthWare.

app.use('/api/users/count', new RoleWare('countUsers', roleObj));

Now we have a working database schema, we properly handle user roles, and we have middlewares to enforce authentication and authorization. The one drawback of this approach is that once a RoleWare object is created, it's roleObj (the in-memory mapping of roles to permissions) will remain the same throughout the object lifetime. If a role is granted a new permission during runtime, RoleWare will not be aware of such a change. Also, since the roles are encoded within the token, the user will need to re-authenticate if they are assigned a role during runtime. Though for my usecases, these two issues aren't a major problem.

To see a similarly-styled RBAC implementation in a real codebase, check out JLCarveth/nodeblog.