Attack Methods for Gaining Domain Admin Rights in Active Directory

There are many ways an attacker can gain Domain Admin rights in Active Directory. This post is meant to describe some of the more popular ones in current use. The techniques described here “assume breach” where an attacker already has a foothold on an internal system and has gained domain user credentials (aka post-exploitation).

The unfortunate reality for most enterprises, is that it often does not take long from an attacker to go from domain user to domain admin. The question on defenders’ minds is “how does this happen?”.

The attack frequently starts with a spear-phishing email to one or more users enabling the attacker to get their code running on a computer inside the target network. Once the attacker has their code running inside the enterprise, the first step is performing reconnaissance to discover useful resources to escalate permissions, persist, and of course, plunder information (often the “crown jewels” of an organization).

While the overall process detail varies, the overall theme remains:

  • Malware Injection (Spear-Phish, Web Exploits, etc)
  • Reconnaissance (Internal)
  • Credential Theft
  • Exploitation & Privilege Escalation
  • Data Access & Exfiltration
  • Persistence (retaining access)

We start with the attacker having a foothold inside the enterprise, since this is often not difficult in modern networks. Furthermore, it is also typically not difficult for the attacker to escalate from having user rights on the workstation to having local administrator rights. This escalation can occur by either exploiting an unpatched privilege escalation vulnerability on the system or more frequently, finding local admin passwords in SYSVOL, such as Group Policy Preferences.

I spoke about most of these techniques when at several security conferences in 2015 (BSides, Shakacon, Black Hat, DEF CON, & DerbyCon).

I also covered some of these issues in the post “The Most Common Active Directory Security Issues and What You Can Do to Fix Them“.

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The Most Common Active Directory Security Issues and What You Can Do to Fix Them

The past couple of years of meeting with customers is enlightening since every environment, though unique, often has the same issues. These issues often boil down to legacy management of the enterprise Microsoft platform going back a decade or more.

I spoke about Active Directory attack and defense at several security conferences this year including BSides, Shakacon, Black Hat, DEF CON, and DerbyCon. These talks include information about how to best protect the Active Directory enterprise from the latest, and most successful, attack vectors.

While the threats have changed over the past decade, the way systems and networks are managed often have not. We continue with the same operations and support paradigm despite the fact that internal systems are compromised regularly. We must embrace the new reality of “Assume Breach.”

Assume breach means that we must assume that an attacker has control of a computer on the internal network and can access the same resources the users who have recently logged on to that computer has access to.
Note that when I describe risks and mitigations of Active Directory,this includes overall enterprise configuration.

Here are some of the biggest AD security issues (as I see them). This list is not complete, but reflects common enterprise issues.
I continue to find many of these issues when I perform Active Directory Security Assessments for organizations.

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From DNSAdmins to Domain Admin, When DNSAdmins is More than Just DNS Administration

It’s been almost 1.5 years since the Medium post by Shay Ber was published that explained how to execute a DLL as SYSTEM on a Domain Controller provided the account is a member of DNSAdmins.
I finally got around to posting here since many I speak with aren’t aware of this issue.

Shay describes this issue as follows (bolded text addedby me):

In addition to implementing their own DNS server, Microsoft has also implemented their own management protocol for that server, to allow for easy management and integration with Active Directory domains. By default, domain controllers are also DNS servers; DNS servers need to be reachable and usable by mostly every domain user. This, in turn, exposes quite some attack surface on domain controllers — on one part, the DNS protocol itself and on the other, the management protocol, which is based on RPC.

We will shallowly delve into the protocol’s implementation and detail a cute feature (certainly not a bug!) which allows us, under some circumstances, to run code as SYSTEM on domain controllers, without being a domain admin. Although this is certainly not a security vulnerability (so no panic is needed), as confirmed with Microsoft, it’s still a cute trick which can be useful as an AD privilege escalation in red team engagements.

So, how is this possible?
I will summarize Shay’s excellent technical review of this issue (this assumes DNS runs on Domain Controllers, which is the most common configuration).

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Domain Controller Print Server + Unconstrained Kerberos Delegation = Pwned Active Directory Forest

At DerbyCon 8 (2018) over the weekend Will Schroeder (@Harmj0y), Lee Christensen (@Tifkin_), & Matt Nelson (@enigma0x3), spoke about the unintended risks of trusting AD. They cover a number of interesting persistence and privilege escalation methods, though one in particular caught my eye.
Lee figured out and presents a scenario where there’s an account with unconstrained delegation configured (which is fairly common) and the Print Spooler service running on a computer, you can get that computers credentials sent to the system with unconstrained delegation as a user.

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Black Hat & DEF CON Presentation Slides Posted

I just uploaded the slides from my Black Hat & DEF CON talks from the past week in Vegas.  They are a bit different with the BH talk more Blue (defensive) and the DC talk mostly Red (Offensive) in focus. Also note that the only real overlap in content is the MFA & password vault sections and those were updated in my DEF CON talk to focus on the attack aspect.

An important note: The methods I show are real and work well in many real-world customer deployments. The issues with MFA and password vaults I highlight are often deployment issues and not necessarily vendor best practices. With that noted, I have seen enterprise password vaults deployed with poor security so often that I don’t think customers are very familiar with the vendor security best practices.

Slides are in the Presentations section.

Black Hat USA 2018 Talk:  “From Workstation to Domain Admin: Why Secure Administration isn’t Secure and How to Fix it”

This talk walks the audience through how AD administration has evolved over time with newer, more “secure” methods and the potential ways to exploit modern AD administration. I explore some methods to exploit current implementation weaknesses in many deployments of multi-factor authentication (MFA) and enterprise password vaults. The latter third of the talk dives into the best defenses and how to employ and deploy them appropriately.

Black Hat Talk Agenda:

  • Current State
  • Evolution of Administration
  • Exploiting Typical Administration
  • Common Methods of Protecting Admins (& bypassing them)
  • MFA
  • Enterprise Password Vaults
  • Admin Forest
  • Building the Best Defenses

DEF CON 26 Talk: “Exploiting Active Directory Administrator Insecurities”

This talk repeats the slide concepts from my Black Hat talk specific to exploiting current implementation weaknesses in many deployments of multi-factor authentication (MFA) and enterprise password vaults.  The talk adds in some challenges in properly discovering AD admins and some additional methods of exploiting current AD environments. I also cover how in many environments it may be possible to compromise a Read-Only Domain Controller to compromise the AD forest. This talk also includes a special, new sneaky AD persistence method which only the DEF CON audience was privy to (not in the slides, at least not directly). I will post a blog article as time allows. 🙂

DEF CON Talk Agenda:

  • Evolution of Admin Discovery
  • Exploiting Typical Administration
  • Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA)
  • Password Vaults
  • Admin Forest
  • Attacking RODCs

Thank you all for your support and your kind words!
– Sean

NolaCon (2018) Active Directory Security Talk Slides Posted

I recently presented my talk  “Active Directory Security: The Journey” at Nolacon in New Orleans, LA.
Slides are now posted here.

On Sunday, May 19th, 2018, I spoke at NolaCon at 11am.

Here’s the talk description:

Active Directory is only the beginning.
Attackers have set their sights squarely on Active Directory when targeting a company, though this typically isn’t the primary objective. The motivation and end goals range from stealing data to impacting corporate operations. In this regard, gaining control of Active Directory is a means to an end; compromising Active Directory is an easy way to gain access to all critical corporate resources. Effectively protecting Active Directory has become critical in limiting the impact of a breach.

This talk takes the audience on a journey covering the various security milestones and challenges with Active Directory. A variety of  AD security posture are highlighted along with the challenges they encounter with securing their systems. Key elements involve how enterprise “”AD aware”” applications can weaken Active Directory security and how leveraging cloud services complicate securing infrastructure. Also explored is what an attacker can do in an environment without having Domain Admin rights. 

This talk covers the critical issues affecting organizations today, as well as the biggest challenges; current attack techniques; and the most effective defensive techniques to prevent and mitigate compromise (including limitations to these approaches).

For the curious, here’s an outline of the talk:

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Attacking Read-Only Domain Controllers (RODCs) to Own Active Directory

I have been fascinated with Read-Only Domain Controllers (RODCs) since RODC was released as a new DC promotion option with Windows Server 2008. Microsoft customers wanted a DC that wasn’t really a DC. – something that could be deployed in a location that’s not physically secure and still be able to authenticate users.

This post covers a few different scenarios on how to attack  Read-Only Domain Controllers in order to escalate privilege. Since RODCs are typically untrusted and viewed as not having the same level of access as writable DCs, it’s possible in many environments to compromise a RODC  to escalate privileges. Given certain scenarios, it’s possible to escalate from a Read-Only Domain Controller to a full writable Domain Controller.  This post covers these scenarios and enables Red and Blue teams to better understand and check RODC configurations for issues.

The information in this post is not from any one customer environment I have seen, but a combination of several. I have found that many AD domains that have RODCs are configured very similarly: many more accounts, both user and computer, have passwords cached on RODCs than is necessary and the ability to manage RODCs is not limited or secured appropriately. This post shows what is possible given common real world RODC deployment configuration. As part of our Active Directory security review services, we scrutinize RODC configuration and identify potential issues with the configuration. Furthermore, we find that when RODCs are deployed in an environment, they are frequently configured  with weak security settings (as noted in “RODCs in the Real World” and “Attacking RODCs” below).

The information here describes what is possible in many Active Directory environments with Read-Only Domain Controllers and doesn’t highlight a misconfiguration, but common configuration issues that could be exploited to escalate privileges in the domain since the RODC is often treated as “just another server” (or worse, as a workstation). Accounts are regularly cached on RODCs (since RODCs that don’t cache passwords aren’t very useful) and once an attacker gains access to it, these passwords are available and may include delegated Active Directory admin accounts which could be compromised.

If you want to simply know how best to “harden Read-Only Domain Controllers”, skip to the end to read the “Securing RODCs Against Attack” section.

Note that throughout this post, I use the Microsoft Active Directory PowerShell cmdlets and some of the attribute names are adjusted in the output from what they are actually named in AD.


Enter the Read-Only Domain Controller 

When Microsoft released Windows Server 2008, a new type of Domain Controller was added called the “Read-Only Domain Controller”. The Read-Only Domain Controller (RODC) performs similar services as a writable Domain Controller except they are “read-only”. But what does that really mean?

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Securing Microsoft Active Directory Federation Server (ADFS)

Many organizations are moving to the cloud and this often requires some level of federation. Federation, put simply, extends authentication from one system (or organization) to another.

Gerald Steere (@Darkpawh) and I spoke about cloud security at DEF CON in July 2017.
Presentation slides and video are here: “Hacking the Cloud

One of the key items we covered was protecting Federation Servers, specifically  Microsoft Active Directory Federation Servers (ADFS).

Microsoft is currently updating guidance for securing ADFS.
This post describes key ADFS concepts and a short-list of security recommendations on how to properly protect ADFS.

Federation Overview

The federation server typically lives on the internal network with a proxy server in the DMZ. There are certificates installed on the Federation server.

ADFS uses the following certificates:

  • Service communication
  • Token-decrypting
  • Token-signing

ADFS terminology also includes:

  • Relying party trusts: cloud services and applications
  • Claim rules: determine what type of access and from where access is allowed.

Key Federation Points:

  • Federation: trust between organizations leveraging PKI (certificates matter)
  • Cloud SSO often leverages temporary or persistent browser cookies (cookies provide access)
  • Several protocols may be supported, though typically SAML. (protocols and versions matter)
  • Federation server (or proxy) is on public internet via port 443 (HTTPS).

Conceptual federation authentication flow Continue reading

Beyond Domain Admins – Domain Controller & AD Administration

Active Directory has several levels of administration beyond the Domain Admins group. In a previous post, I explored: “Securing Domain Controllers to Improve Active Directory Security” which explores ways to better secure Domain Controllers and by extension, Active Directory. For more information on Active Directory specific rights and permission review my post “Scanning for Active Directory Privileges & Privileged Accounts.”

This post provides information on how Active Directory is typically administered and the associated roles & rights.

  • Domain Admins is the AD group that most people think of when discussing Active Directory administration. This group has full admin rights by default on all domain-joined servers and workstations, Domain Controllers, and Active Directory. It gains admin rights on domain-joined computers since when these systems are joined to AD, the Domain Admins group is added to the computer’s Administrators group.
  • Enterprise Admins is a group in the forest root domain that has full AD rights to every domain in the AD forest. It is granted this right through membership in the Administrators group in every domain in the forest.
  • Administrators in the AD domain, is the group that has default admin rights to Active Directory and Domain Controllers and provides these rights to Domain Admins and Enterprise Admins, as well as any other members.
  • Schema Admins is a group in the forest root domain that has the ability to modify the Active Directory forest schema.

Since the Administrators group is the domain group that provides full rights to AD and Domain Controllers, it’s important to monitor this group’s membership (including all nested groups). The Active Directory PowerShell cmdlet “Get-ADGroupMember” can provide group membership information.

Default groups in Active Directory often have extensive rights – many more than typically required. For this reason, we don’t recommend using these groups for delegation. Where possible, perform custom delegation to ensure the principle of least privilege is followed. The following groups should have a “DC” prefix added to them since the scope applies to Domain Controllers by default. Furthermore, they have elevated rights on Domain Controllers and should be considered effectively Domain Controller admins.

  • Backup Operators is granted the ability to logon to, shut down, and perform backup/restore operations on Domain Controllers (assigned via the Default Domain Controllers Policy GPO). This group cannot directly modify AD admin groups, though associated privileges provides a path for escalation to AD admin. Backup Operators have the ability to schedule tasks which may provide an escalation path. They also are able to clear the event logs on Domain Controllers.
  • Print Operators is granted the ability to manage printers and load/unload device drivers on Domain Controllers as well as manage printer objects in Active Directory. By default, this group can logon to Domain Controllers and shut them down. This group cannot directly modify AD admin groups.
  • Server Operators is granted the ability to logon to, shut down, and perform backup/restore operations on Domain Controllers (assigned via the Default Domain Controllers Policy GPO). This group cannot directly modify AD admin groups, though associated privileges provides a path for escalation to AD admin.

To a lesser extend, we’ll group Remote Desktop Users into this category as well.

  • Remote Desktop Users is a domain group designed to easily provide remote access to systems. In many AD domains, this group is added to the “Allow log on through Terminal Services” right in the Default Domain Controllers Policy GPO providing potential remote logon capability to DCs.

We also see that many times the following is configured via GPO linked to the Domain Controllers OU:

  • Remote Desktop Users: often granted “Allow log on through Terminal Services” right via Group Policy linked to the Domain Controllers OU.
  • Server Operators: granted “Allow log on through Terminal Services” right via Group Policy linked to the Domain Controllers OU.
  • Server Operators: granted “Log on as a batch job” right via GPO providing the ability to schedule tasks.

Review the GPOs linked to the Domain and the Domain Controllers OU and ensure the GPO settings are appropriate.
We often find that a servers GPO is also linked to the Domain Controllers OU and it adds a “Server Admins” group to the local Administrators group. Since Domain Controllers don’t have a “local” Administrators group, the DC updates the domain Administrators group by adding Server Admins. This scenario makes all members of Server Admins Active Directory admins.

Any group/account granted logon locally rights to Domain Controllers should be scrutinized.

Server Operators & Backup Operators have elevated rights on Domain Controllers and should be monitored. The Active Directory PowerShell cmdlet “Get-ADGroupMember” can provide group membership information.


Other default groups with elevated rights:

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AD Reading: Windows Server 2016 Active Directory Features

The following are useful resources for Windows Server 2016 Active Directory Features.


Windows 2016 Features


Privileged Access Management (PAM)


Azure AD Join


Microsoft Hello for Business (formerly Microsoft Passport)