Today Cyber Security plays a paramount role in global security. On this blog, the CEO of Paramount Defenses shares rare insights on issues related to Cyber Security, including Privileged Access, Organizational Cyber Security, Foundational Security, Windows Security, Active Directory Security, Insider Threats and other topics.

March 1, 2016

The Paramount Brief - Declassified and Substantiated


Earlier today, at Paramount Defenses we declassified The Paramount Brief.

All along, the password to the brief has been :  AreWeReallySecure?  (A question organizations need to ask themselves.)

To some the brief may appear to be a fairly simple document. Its simplicity is intentional, because it was primarily written for a non-technical audience i.e. C-Level Executives worldwide who lead the world's top business and government organizations.

It was written for C-Level executives because we found that in most organizations, not only is there a substantial lack of understanding regarding the importance of protecting their foundational Active Directory, but also there is no accountability chain, and almost no one at the top realizes the consequences that an Active Directory Security breach could have on business.

The risk described in the brief is in our opinion the world's #1 cyber security because it provides possibly the easiest possible avenue for professional perpetrators to start at a single initial easily compromisable organizational domain-joined machine or account and gain all-powerful privileged access (the "Keys to the Kingdom") in minutes, by just enacting a few simple tasks.

It is also imperative to understand that neither of 1) multi-factor authentication, 2) auditing, or 3) user-activity/network logging/profiling can prevent a proficient perpetrator from being successful. (Details available upon request.)

Today, I'll share just a few high-level technical details involved. The low-level technical details can be boring, so I'll save them for another day, or you can have your best IT folks try and explain them to you.

Active Directory - The Core of Privileged Access

Unless you live on another planet, you know that Active Directory is the core of privileged access in Microsoft Windows Server based IT infrastructures (and that's over 85% of the world) because all privileged power resides in Active Directory.

In fact, Active Directory is not just the core of privileged access, it is the very foundation of cyber security worldwide, because the IT infrastructures of most business and government organizations are powered by Microsoft Active Directory, and in these IT infrastructures, the entirety of the organization's user accounts, computer accounts and security groups are stored, protected and managed in the organization's Active Directory.

By the way, Active Directory is not only foundational to Microsoft's native authentication protocol in Windows, Kerberos (without which no one can logon to engage in any secure network activity in a Microsoft Windows Server based network), it is also foundational to Microsoft's entire cloud computing platform, Microsoft Azure.

An Ocean of Active Directory Permissions

Within Active Directory, each of these foundational building blocks of cyber security, i.e. domain user and computer accounts, security groups, etc. are all stored as  Active Directory objects, and are each protected by an access control list (ACL) that specifies security permissions (e.g. Create Child, Reset Password etc.) granted (allowed/denied) to a security principal (user, group, well-known SID etc.) on the object.

In most Active Directory deployment, there exist thousands of objects (accounts, groups, OUs etc.), each one of which needs to be securely managed. Since it is not feasible for a small number of individuals to manage such a large number of accounts and groups, Active Directory provides a valuable capability called delegation of administration which enables organizations to delegate various aspects of identity and access management amongst their IT teams based on the principle of least privilege.

This administrative delegation capability leverages Active Directory's security model, and in essence, for each administrative delegation made in Active Directory, corresponding security permissions are specified in the ACLs of all objects that fall in the scope of the administrative delegation, for the security principals (users, groups etc.) to whom the tasks are being delegated.

In addition, IT personnel also often specify access directly/manually in the ACLs of Active Directory objects to directly delegate administrative tasks or provision access to fulfill specific business requirements.

Consequently, today, in thousands of organizations worldwide, it is these very Active Directory security permissions that protect all privileged user accounts and group memberships, and in fact all Active Directory content, and that ultimately control/govern who has what privileged access across the network.

In fact, in most Active Directory deployments, since IT personnel have been delegating administration and provisioning access in the Active Directory for years now, there exist hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Active Directory security permissions that are collectively protecting the organization's foundational building blocks of cyber security.

In essence, underlying the foundational cyber security of most organizations worldwide, is an ocean of Active Directory security permissions collectively protecting the very building blocks of cyber security in their Active Directory.

How Secure are our Building Blocks of Security in Active Directory?

If the very foundational building blocks of cyber security that help an organization facilitate secure access to the entirety of their IT assets, it is worth asking the question as to how secure are these very building blocks themselves within the Active Directory.

For instance, since all of the most powerful administrative security groups in a Microsoft Windows Server IT infrastructure (e.g. Enterprise Admins, Domain Admins, Builtin Admins, etc.) are stored in Active Directory, its worth asking the question - Exactly how many individuals today have sufficient access to be able to change/control/manage the membership of these groups?

After all, if an unauthorized individual could control the membership of any one of these powerful privileged access groups, he could instantly elevate himself or anyone of his choice to be an all-powerful admin and obtain the "Keys to the Kingdom".

Similarly, for each privileged access user that is a member of these powerful privileged groups, its worth asking the question - Exactly how many individuals can reset the password of the domain user account of these privileged access users?

After all, if a single unauthorized individual could reset the password of even one of these privileged accounts, he/she could instantly become a privileged user and obtain the "Keys to the Kingdom". Similarly, if Smart cards are in use, its absolutely worth knowing, at all times, exactly how many individuals can disable the use of Smart Cards on Active Directory accounts?

In fact, the same questions must be asked for all Executive accounts, such as that of the CEO, CIO, CISO, CFO etc. Actually they hold true for all accounts, such as that of a Software Engineer that might have access to the source-code of an operating system at a major software company, or a financial analyst who might have access to confidential financial data, so ideally organizations must know exactly who can reset the password of / disable the Smart Card of every employee in the organization.

By the same token, isn't it worth asking the question as to exactly how many people can change the membership of any domain security group that is being used to control access to a small or large set of IT resources across the network? After all, the easiest way to gain access to a large number of IT resources across the network is simply to add your account to a security group that already has access to these IT resources. That way, you don't even have to try to compromise a server; you'll automatically be granted access to all IT assets across the network to which that group is granted access!

In summary, organizations have a mission-critical need to know, at all times, exactly who can control the very foundational building blocks of their cyber security, because without this knowledge, they are operating in the (dangerous) proverbial dark.


In case you're wondering how relevant this might be to cyber security today, allow me to share a simple fact with you - 100% of all major recent cyber security breaches (Snowden, Target, JP Morgan, Sony, Anthem, OPM) involved the compromise and misuse of a single Active Directory privileged access user account.

As evidenced by these breaches, today Active Directory privileged user accounts are the #1 target for malicious perpetrators.

Thus far, perpetrators have been using difficult ways to compromise Active Directory accounts. I'm referring to passing hashes, reusing tickets etc. Unfortunately, there are far easier was to compromise Active Directory privileged user accounts today.

For instance, all you need to do is to find out who can reset a privileged user's password, iterate that process a few times, and find a single vulnerable starting point, which once compromised, will allow you to escalate your privilege to that privileged user within seconds, without having to go through such archaic and painful ways (i.e. pass-the-hash etc.)

For that matter, simply determine who controls the membership of a privileged user group, then find out who can reset their password, and iterate the process a couple of times, and you'll likely find that some local IT admin whose account or computer is insufficiently protected is in that chain. That's your starting point. Once you've got his account, the rest takes a few seconds.

The astute mind will get the drift.

But we use Smart Cards!

Organizations that have Smart Cards or other multi-factor authentication measures in place may be operating under a false sense of security by assuming that since they have multi-factor authentication in place, they're immune from password reset based attack vectors. (Besides there's much more to this than mere password resets.)

For such organizations, it might help to know that the weakest link in the use of smart cards (or other multi-factor authentication measures) is that anyone who has administrative control over the smart-card protected account can with a single mouse-click uncheck the Smart card is required for interactive logon setting on the account.

As soon as that happens, authentication on the account will fallback to being password based, and one can set any password of choice on the account and login with it. So at the very least, its worth knowing at all times - Exactly how many individuals have modify permissions or write-property to the relevant attribute on smart-card enabled accounts?

The astute mind will note that in addition to the above, you'll also want to know exactly who has Modify Permissions permissions on a Smart Card enabled account, because anyone who has that permission, can grant him/herself any permission on the account, including the permission required to uncheck the uncheck the Smart card is required for interactive logon setting.

Cyber Security 101

Folks, this is Cyber Security 101. After all, if cyber security is fundamentally about ensuring that all to an organization's digital assets is authenticated and authorized based on the principle of least-privilege, how can an organization accomplish that without knowing exactly who effectively has what access on the very foundational building blocks of cyber security that enable them to provision and maintain least-privileged access across your IT infrastructure?

Today, at the very least, today, all organizations must have answers to the following basic questions -
  1. How many individuals possess unrestricted privileged access in Active Directory?
  2. How many individuals possess restricted (delegated) privileged access in Active Directory?
  3. Exactly who can manage the accounts of these unrestricted and restricted privileged access users?
  4. Exactly who can reset the passwords of these unrestricted and restricted privileged access users?
  5. Exactly who can change the membership of our privileged security groups in Active Directory?
  6. Exactly who can control security permissions on privileged accounts, groups and OUs in Active Directory?
(The astute mind will observe that one should at the very least also know exactly who can modify the Trusted for Unconstrained Delegation bit on domain computer accounts, because if you can do that, then ...   (... I'll let you complete the sentence.))

After all, if we don't even know who possesses and controls privileged access in our foundational Active Directory environments, i.e. who possesses and controls the Keys to the Kingdom, what's the point of deploying a plethora of cyber security measures.

Ideally, at a minimum, the same questions should be answered for all executive accounts (CEO, CFO, CIO, CISO, Board Members, VPs etc.) and groups, as well as all high-value accounts, groups and IT assets stored in the Active Directory.

Speaking of which, shouldn't organizations know exactly who can create user accounts and security groups in their Active Directory, or for that matter, join machines to the domain, and of course who can delete domain user and computer accounts, security groups and OUs?

(The astute mind will observe that in fact there is a lot more that all organizations must know about at all times, such as, for instance, something as simple as who can change the logon hours of domain user accounts, because if just ONE perpetrator (e.g. a disgruntled insider) who had sufficient effective access to be able to do so, were to write a simple script to change the logon hours of all domain user accounts, you could easily have a situation wherein come Monday morning at 9:00 am no one would be able to logon, and if course if no one can logon, business comes to a proverbial halt!)

So, how do we answer these fundamental yet important cyber-security questions?

As mentioned above, today, in most organizations worldwide, the entirety of an organization's foundational cyber security building blocks are being collectively protected by hundreds of thousands (and in most cases, millions) of Active Directory security permissions specified in Active Directory ACLs.

How is an organization to determine exactly who has what level of privileged access across these hundreds of thousands (or millions) of security permissions spanning thousands of their Active Directory objects?

Those who know very little about Active Directory Security will tell you that's easy. They'll suggest doing  a simple ACL dump and then looking at what permissions are granted to which users/groups. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if most IT personnel at most organizations will suggest this route. (One could of course follow that suggestion, but then one would end up with substantially inaccurate data, reliance upon which could be very dangerous, to say the least.)

You see, unfortunately, its not that easy. In fact, its difficult, very difficult.

Here's why...

Active Directory Effective Permissions/Access

For the sake of simplicity, consider the security permissions specified in the ACL of a single Active Directory object.

Each of these Active Directory security permissions allows or denies some user or group some access. However, they do not individually influence access because as you may know, permissions can be allowed or denied, and be explicit or inherited, so in fact it is the complete set of all security permissions specified in the ACL of an Active Directory object, considered as a whole, in light of the governing precedence orders (e.g. explicitly specified permissions override inherited permissions but not always, denies override allows but not always, etc.) that ultimately determine the true and actually i.e. effective permissions/access granted on the object.

In other words, it is the effective permissions on an Active Directory object that matter and that govern who really has what access on an Active Directory object. This one fundamental fact of Active Directory security potentially impacts global security today, yet very few folks understand it.

Any individual or organizations that is relying on a simple enumeration/analysis of who has what permissions, as opposed to who has what effective permissions, is doing it completely wrong, and operating on dangerously inaccurate data.

In fact, Effective Permissions are so important that Microsoft's native tooling has an entire tab dedicated to them -

Unfortunately, Microsoft's Effective Permissions Tab has three major deficiencies which almost render it practically useless.

The first is that it may not always take all factors involved in the accurate determination of effective permissions into account.

(I'm not about to publicly mention the inaccuracies of the native Effective Permissions calculator in Active Directory, because the last time I mentioned one publicly, Microsoft picked up on it, and fixed it. (That one had to do with determining and displaying who can modify back-links in Active Directory. Strictly speaking, no one can modify back-links, because they are constructed / read-only. However, prior to my having mentioned that publicly, the Effective Permissions Tab/calculator would happily (and errantly) display a list of individuals who could modify back-links.))

The second and major one is that (as seen in the picture above) it can at best compute an approximation of the effective permissions for a specific user that you have to specify. The astute mind will note that this very quickly renders it almost unusable, because if you had 10,000 domain user accounts in your Active Directory, you would have to enter the identity of each one of these 10,000 users, ONE by ONE, and then make a note of their effective permissions to ultimately and hopefully arrive at the list of all individuals that may have a specific effective permission granted on a given Active Directory object.

I don't know about you, but if my manager asked me to sit in front of a computer, and enter 10,000 names one after the other, then make a note of all the effective permissions granted to each user, (you know, a process that could take weeks), I would probably find more suitable employment elsewhere.

The third one and the biggest one is that the Microsoft's native Effective Permissions Tab can at best determine effective permissions for a single user on a single object. In other words, if an organization had thousands of objects in its Active Directory, organizational IT personnel would have to use the tab one object at a time, specifying one user at a time, and that process could take years to do, not to mention that since the state of access in Active Directory is constantly changing, in all likelihood, any such attempts to make such determinations would be futile to begin with.

For instance, consider this - let's say you wanted to answer the simple, fundamental question - Who can create user accounts in our Active Directory?

That seems like a question most organizations should want to know the answer to, because if someone could create a user account, they could engage in malicious activities that could not be linked to them.

It turns out that to answer this one single question, the organization would have to determine effective permissions on every object in Active Directory under which someone could create a user account e.g. Organizational Units, Container etc.

We recently had a very prominent government organization come to us with this exact need. For reasons known best to them, they had 20,000 organizational units in their Active Directory domain, so to answer that one simple fundamental question, they would have to determine effective permissions on at least 20,000 OUs in their Active Directory!

There are very few people in the world who know how to accurately determine effective permissions in Active Directory. Even if they could, and it took them 30 minutes to do so per object, it would take them 600,000 minutes to determine effective permissions across 20,000 objects, and that's assuming no one changed a single permission during that time.

I think you'll get the drift.

(Incidentally, with our innovative cyber security tooling that embodies our unique, patented and globally recognized effective access assessment technology, this organizations was able to make this determination within minutes, at a button's touch.)

You see, in order to answer these elemental and fundamental cyber security questions concerning who has what privileged access in Active Directory, organizations require the ability to accurately and efficiently determine effective access across an entire tree of Active Directory objects. (Simply put, the ability to efficiently perform an accurate effective privileged access audit.)

You know, something like this.

Unfortunately, Active Directory completely lacks this elemental and fundamental capability, and as a result, organizations have no way of knowing exactly who effectively has what privileged access on their foundational building blocks of cyber security. (They never have!)

In fact, because they have never had this capability, considering that most Active Directory deployments have been around for years, and that a substantial amount of access provisioning and delegation has been done over the years, we have a situation wherein an excessive and unknown number of users have all kinds of effective privileged access in the Active Directory, yet no one knows exactly who has what effective privileged access.

Beware of Inaccurate Tooling

I'll digress for a minute to share something important with you. As goes the old saying, the only thing more dangerous than no knowledge is inaccurate knowledge. In all of ten years that we've been around, not a single organization has attempted to address the problem, perhaps because they're mature enough to understand just how difficult it is to solve this problem.

However recently, one company had a brilliant(ly dumb) marketing idea for their auditing solution, so amidst some fanfare, it released freeware tooling that claims to make some of this easy. Having written the book on the subject, we tested this tooling, and were shocked to find that it is not only woefully inadequate, it is so substantially inaccurate, that its almost dangerous.

Interestingly, this company seems to have no clue as to just how substantially inaccurate their tooling is. Sadly, neither do most IT pros, who may happily proceed to rely on it, in effect endangering the very foundational security for their organizations.

To metaphorically give you an idea of just how inaccurate it is, if it were being used as a metal/weapon detector at an airport, let alone boarding the flight, we would not just run out of the terminal, we would get out of the airport as fast as we could!

In our opinion, the only folks who could possibly benefit from such substantially inaccurate freeware tooling are malicious perpetrators, because even if its only 20% accurate, that's sufficient for them to identify a few privilege escalation paths.

Organizations Worldwide are likely at High Risk

In the foundational Active Directory deployments of most organizations today, today there likely exist 1000s of arcane privilege escalation paths in most Active Directory deployments worldwide, leading from regular domain/computer accounts to highly privileged user accounts and security groups, that are difficult hard to identify with the naked eye.

However, with sufficient tooling, in the wrong hands, they could be very quickly identified and potentially exploited by malicious perpetrators to inflict substantial damage within minutes.

Sadly, a malicious perpetrator need only compromise a single domain user/computer account to deploy and use such tooling to identify these privilege escalation paths. The entire discovery process would be read-only and given the sheer amount of read access that takes place in Active Directory deployments, it would in all likelihood not show up on any radar.

Once the perpetrator has identified a kill-chain, he/she could make a move at an opportune time (e.g. Saturday morning 3:00 am) and in less than 5 minutes, simply by using basic Active Directory management tools provided by Microsoft, escalate his/her privilege to that of an all-powerful privileged access user.

Once that's done, its game over.

[Fortunately, with similar tooling, designed for and only made available to the good guys (i.e. organizational IT personnel), organizations could quickly and accurately determine effective privileged access in their Active Directory, as well as their source, and eliminate all excessive access before it can be exploited by malicious perpetrators.]

The Attack Surface

The attack surface is unfortunately vast - it is the entire Active Directory.

The attack surface is vast because virtually every domain user account, computer account, security group and other vital content stored in Active Directory is a potential target of compromise.

Attack surface details are over at -

Active Directory Effective Privileged Access Audit

As a mature and professional cyber security company, we do not shed light on cyber security risks that cannot be mitigated, because we understand that doing so can potentially endanger organizations.

Folks, this profoundly elemental, high-impact cyber security risk is actually virtually 100% mitigatable, and in fact any organization that wishes to mitigate it can do so in a very short amount of time.

To mitigate this risk, what organizations worldwide require is the ability to accurately and efficiently determine effective privileged access across entire Active Directory trees (OUs, domains etc.) so that they can quickly and reliably identify all individuals who currently possess, but are not entitled/authorized to possessing, effective privileged access in their foundational Active Directory, as well as identify the source of all such identified excessive access, so that they can then quickly revoke all such excessive access before malicious perpetrators are able to identify and potentially exploit them.

Today, organizations also have several options to do so, as outlined at -

Subsequently, having attained least-privileged access state in their Active Directory, they can and must continue to maintain this least-privileged access state in their foundational Active Directory at all times, because it only takes the compromise of one privileged access user account to cause substantial damage.

My 10 minutes are almost up, so I will conclude this by adding that although this is a high-impact esoteric cyber security risk that potentially threatens the foundational cyber security of most organizations worldwide today, it is virtually 100% mitigatable, and all it really takes for an organization to mitigate this risk is to have the will to mitigate it.

Finally, as you will hopefully agree, there can be no security without accountability, and accountability must start at the very top, because should there be a cyber security incident, ultimately, it the organization's leadership that will be held accountable by its stakeholders, which is why the Paramount Brief was written for executives.

Over the last decade, IT administrators and IT professionals from 8,000+ organizations across 150+ countries worldwide have knocked at our door (completely unsolicited), and we found that most of these organizations had one thing in common - the troops in the trenches know about the problem, but middle and senior management seem clueless, as a result of which, the troops are powerless, and afraid to escalate the problem, and as a result, we have a dangerous situation wherein most organizations worldwide are still defenseless and in the proverbial dark.

It is high-time the Generals (CEOs) and their Colonels (CIOs, CISOs, IT Directors etc.) understood that their troops need their help, and that should an adversary be successful in taking them down, entire Kingdoms could be lost very, very quickly.

(Any organization in the world that would like to see a demo of just how easy this is to do may feel free to request one.)

The CEOs of the world's Top-200 business organizations have also been directly informed about this cyber security risk.

Best wishes,

PS1: Note to the folks at Microsoft - If you need help understanding this stuff, let me know.

PS2: If you found this interesting, you may like - OPM Data Breach Cyber Security Hack: Trillion $ Privileged Access Insight

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