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.

October 17, 2016

A Simple Trillion $ Cyber Security Question for Microsoft (MSFT) regarding Defending Active Directory Against Cyberattacks


Ask any good security practioner or hacker and they'll tell you that security is in the details so this is a slightly detailed post.  This blog post is also worth a proverbial Trillion $, so if you're into cyber security, you'll want to read it in its entirety.

First things first - As I indicated last week, sometime this week, I will be respectfully and publicly taking Microsoft to Active Directory Security School. This post is not the one that takes them to school; this post is merely a curtain raiser and sets the stage for that post. That post will be titled "Defending Active Directory Against Cyberattacks", and it will be sometime this week.

Today I respectfully pose a simple trillion $ cyber security question to Microsoft regarding the contents of the following video that Microsoft released in May 2016 -  

(Please click the Play button to view the video. If it does not play, you can see it on Microsoft's website here.)

First, the context -
  • In May 2016, i.e. within 2 months of this, and for the first time in the 16 years that Active Directory has been around, Microsoft developed and released a 7-part series of 12 videos titled "Defending Active Directory against Cyberattacks". The entire series can be found here. They even made a promo for it, which can be found here.

Next, the summary of the video above titled "Defending the Directory", quoted verbatim -
  • "Do you know who your admins are? Learn why maintaining solid access control to sensitive directory objects is important for mitigating stealthy means of persistence and escalation of privilege."

Then, a few quick thoughts -
  • I'd like to publicly commend Microsoft for producing this video series on Active Directory Security. It was high time that Microsoft voiced and stressed the importance and urgency of defending Active Directory deployments.
  • I strongly encourage IT personnel at all organizations to watch the above video. It is a 29 minute video, but its worth your time, because it concerns a lesser known but highly potent attack vector that most organizations are likely not aware about, and wherein the attack surface is the size of the Atlantic ocean, and one that could easily grant an intruder or an insider complete command and control of the organization's foundational Active Directory in minutes.

Finally, before I pose the question, for those who may not have the time to view it, some important quotes from this video -
  1. "The first thing I want to discuss is admins that are a little bit less obvious, or you don't realize they're admins" 
  2. "Lots of customers I work with are laser focused on Domain Admins, Enterprise Admins, Builtin Admins and Schema Admins, and they think that if I know who is a member in any one of those groups, I know who my admins are, which isn't always necessarily the case, because with the way that Active Directory works, you can delegate access to different objects through access control lists"
  3. "If I had permissions to say link a GPO to the Domain Controllers OU, then I could use that to go from what appears to be an unprivileged account to having full control over Active Directory"
  4.  "I am able to do this (i.e. use Mimikatz DCSync to replicate everyone's hashes from Active Directory) using a plain domain user account because this account has been delegated some rights at the Domain level"
  5. "A lot of organizations have been using Active Directory since it was released back in 2000, and then they went to 2003 and then 2008 and now they're on 2012, and over that time period they've probably had a lot of turnover in the organization, so the guy that setup AD 10 years ago isn't with the company anymore, and the guy that's doing this now is inheriting a mess potentially from several previous administrators, and people could have delegated this for what they thought was a legitimate reason, and it leaves another attack vector that is less obvious."
  6. "Absolutely everything inside of Active Directory is an object, protected by ACLs and these things (ACLs) can be manipulated in a great number of ways depending on what permissions you have there"
  7. "You can be an admin through (deeply) nested groups. I have seen that quite a bit. It can get pretty messy. That is why you want to keep a clean directory."
  8. "Contest your delegates. Challenge them. Go and find out who has been delegated what privileges"
  9. "Somebody, either possibly legitimately, or illegitimately, was granted rights that gave them a lot of power. They could grab the hash of any account, and become that account, simply by having been delegated the Get Replication Changes All rights on that object"
  10. "If I have write member permissions on a group, I can add myself to this group, and since this group via group nesting is a member of the Domain Admins group, I could easily and instantly escalate my privilege to that of a Domain Admin"
  11. "So effectively that is a means of escalation!"
  12. "If a group or account has been granted change password on an account, and that account is privileged, I can change the password on that account, and now I own it!" (See corrections below.)
  13. "We're getting pretty deep into the inner workings of Active Directory, but based on what you showed us in the demo, its super important. It is, it is VERY IMPORTANT because these are all different ways that I could use to escalate privilege, and they're not obvious because its controlled by the access control lists (ACLs)! "
  14. "We are working to identify which ACLs in Active Directory can lead to command and control of Active Directory"

Oh, and a few relevant (i.e. not all) corrections  -
  • "If a group or account has been granted change password on an account, and that account is privileged, I can change the password on that account, and now I own it!" is technically incorrect. It should have been "If a group or account has been granted RESET password on an account, and that account is privileged, I can RESET the password on that account, and now I own it!" It is incorrect because in order to change a user's password, you need to know his/her existing password. Details here or here.
  • "You can use the Get-ACL cmdlet in PowerShell with Active Directory and you can view who has the rights on the object that I am looking at, what rights they have." Who has what rights/permissions granted in the ACL of an Active Directory object is NOT the same as who actually has what rights in Active Directory! There's a world of a difference.
  • "If I have that permission, I can link that GPO" should be "If I effectively have that permission, then I can link that GPO." Having the permission listed in the ACL is by no means sufficient. Similarly, simply viewing the ACL to see who has Get Replication Changes All is neither sufficient nor the accurate way to find out who can actually replicate secrets from Active Directory. (You need to know who effectively has that permission granted.) More on that later this week.

The Trillion $ Question

Finally, the Trillion $ Question is -

  • The Context

    Microsoft, its 2016 and you're (only) a $500 Billion company today because virtually the entire world is your customer. Today, across your global organizational customer base, from the Fortune 1000 to entire federal, state and local governments, there exist billions of Active Directory security permissions (aka access privileges) protecting hundreds of millions of Active Directory objects across thousands of Active Directory deployments worldwide.

    Its 2016, and so it is 16 years after Active Directory shipped (and so interestingly coincidentally, just 2 months after we, Paramount Defenses, declassified the Paramount Brief) that you're just now and finally stressing the paramount importance of Active Directory Security to your customers, and you finally and rightly tell the world (and I quote from the video above titled "Defending the Directory") - "Go and find out who has been delegated what privileges" because "everything in Active Directory is an object" "protected by access control lists" and "this is very, very important"   BUT when you do so, you completely forget to tell them the one most important technical fact about how to correctly assess who has actually been delegated what privileges in Active Directory i.e. the one technical fact that governs the actual resulting access and delegations in Active Directory.

    This, even though it was right in front of the presenter's eyes during one of the methods demonstrated in the video!

    (By the way, in the video, the methods demonstrated by the presenter on how to assess these rights/permissions and delegations are substantially inadequate and incorrect. However, the presenter is not to blame because he is merely presenting what has consistently been (inaccurate) official guidance from Microsoft in its whitepapers etc.)

    The Question

     In light of the context above, my simple question to you is - Can you please tell the world WHAT is the one cardinal (paramount) technical fact that governs the determination of who can actually do what in Active Directory?

    By the way, HOW in the world could you have forgotten to cover it, when you know that in all likelihood, millions of IT folks from 1000s of organizations across 150+ countries worldwide are going to view these videos and based on the guidance presented, enact measures to enhance the foundational cyber security of their organizations?!

Make not mistake about it. In the answer to this question lies the key to organizational cyber security globally. It's that simple.

Here's why - If organizations do not swiftly and correctly identify and eliminate the ocean of unauthorized access privileges that exists in their Active Directory deployments today, it is only a matter of time before intruders or insiders exploit this ocean of vulnerabilities to obtain complete command and control over foundational Active Directory deployments worldwide.

Oh, and, by the way, no cyber security company on the planet (neither the McAfees nor the CyberArks of the world, neither the FireEyes nor the CrowdStrikes of the world, neither the Centrifys nor the BeyondTrusts of the world) seems to have a clue as to the answer, or for that matter seems to know how to help organizations correctly identify the ocean of unauthorized access privileges that exist in 1000s of Active Directory deployments worldwide, just waiting to be found and exploited.

Substantiating the Trillion $

In case you're wondering why I say its a Trillion $ cyber security question, that's because if you were to add up the market cap of the 20,000+ organizations across 150+ countries, not to mention or include the 1000s of local, state and federal/national governments at whose very foundation lies Microsoft Active Directory, you'll find the sum will handily be in the trillions of $.

Also, in case you find yourself wondering as to how this 1 simple question could possibly impact organizational cyber security globally, for now just consider the colossal impact of even a single (i.e. just one) successful execution of mimikatz DCSync in an organization's network, i.e. the colossal damage a proficient adversary could subsequently, swiftly inflict - it'd be Game Over.

Oh, and by the way, mimikatz DCSync is just the Tip of the Iceberg.  (More (i.e. an ocean to be precise) on that later this week.)

Looking Forward to an Answer

So, to my incredibly talented, hard-working and respected colleagues and friends at Microsoft, I (and the world) look forward to your answer. Also, in case you don't really like that this question is being asked publicly, my sincerest apologies. It is 2016 after all, not 2006, and as you too likely know 100% of all major recent cyber security breaches (e.g. Snowden (at NSA), Target, JP Morgan, Sony, Anthem, OPM) have involved the compromise and misuse of just one Active Directory privileged user account.

If for any reason, you can't answer this question, no worries, I'll answer it for you, later this week, right here on this blog.

Best wishes,

PS: This blog is read by 1000s of prominent folks (CEOs, CIOs, CISOs,  IT Directors, Domain Admins, Security Analysts and Pen Testers at Fortune 100 and 1000 companies, institutional and individual shareholders, cyber security personnel and leadership at 3-letter government agencies worldwide, nation states (e.g. UK, the EU, Australia, Russia, China etc.) and it being a public blog, unfortunately even folks on the dark side) from 150+ countries worldwide. In other words, everyone's tuned in.

PS2: July 25, 2017 Update.  I just answered this question for Microsoft. The answer to this Trillion $ question is right  HERE.