Active Directory Security

Learn about the essential best practices for securing Active Directory to protect against sophisticated cyber threats, like Pass-the-Hash and Golden Ticket attacks, through secure configuration, monitoring, and industry-standard administrative practices.

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Active Directory (AD) plays a large role in the world of enterprise IT security. Guarding this critical infrastructure against cyber threats isn’t just prudent—it’s paramount. As attackers increasingly target AD with sophisticated exploits, such as Pass-the-Hash, Golden Ticket attacks, and credential harvesting, the need for active defense grows ever more urgent.

This article builds on a tactical exploration of AD security strategies designed to outmaneuver these threats and safeguard the integrity of organizational networks. It includes real-world examples and established best practices for secure configuration, monitoring, and administrative protocols.

Summary of Key Active Directory Security Best Practices

The following best practices will assist you in creating and maintaining a secure Active Directory implementation for your organization.
Best Practice Description
Have a Secure Configuration Implement and enforce group policies for AD management. Deploy privileged access management (PAM) for strict oversight of privileged accounts.
Implement Monitoring and Auditing Enhance your AD security with real-time monitoring, detailed change logs for troubleshooting, and robust auditing tools for compliance and risk assessment.
Adhere to Industry-Standard Administrator Practices Use role-based access control (RBAC) for permission alignment, adhere to the least privilege principle to minimize security risks, and utilize multi-factor authentication (MFA) for strengthened user authentication.

Cyber Threats to Active Directory

Pass-the-Hash Attacks

Pass-the-hash (PtH) attacks pose a threat to Active Directory (AD) due to their ability to exploit the authentication mechanism of Windows networks. By stealing NT LAN Manager (NTLM) hash values—which are stored hash functions rather than plaintext passwords—attackers can impersonate legitimate users without the need to decrypt or know the actual password. This form of credential theft enables attackers to gain unauthorized access and, potentially, escalate privileges within a network, often without triggering detection systems.

A PtH attack takes advantage of the fact that user credentials are typically cached as hash values within a system. When a user logs into a Windows account, the password is hashed, and the hash is stored in memory, allowing the user to access other network resources without re-entering the password. An attacker who successfully obtains these hash values can effectively “pass” them for authentication, traversing a network under the guise of a valid user account. This method bypasses the need for password cracking, making the attack more efficient.

How a pass-the-hash attack works
How a Pass-the-Hash Attack Works

Golden Ticket Attacks

Golden ticket attacks are advanced persistent threats (APTs) that exploit the Kerberos authentication protocol, which is integral to the security of AD environments. A golden ticket is a forged Kerberos Ticket Granting Ticket (TGT) that allows attackers to impersonate any AD user, access resources across the network, and often maintain persistence within the system.

The attack begins when an adversary gains sufficient privileges to compromise a domain controller, allowing access to the AD database. The attacker can extract from the database the Kerberos key, known as the KRBTGT account hash, which is used to create golden tickets. These tickets can be repeatedly used for access until the KRBTGT account password is changed, and because they are trusted internally, they often go undetected for long periods.

How a credential harvesting attack works
How a Golden Ticket Attack Works

Credential Harvesting

Credential harvesting is a critical threat vector where attackers gather credentials such as usernames and passwords from their targets, often as a preliminary step toward a more extensive attack. This practice encompasses various techniques, like phishing, keylogging, and exploiting system vulnerabilities. After harvesting credentials, the attacker can gain unauthorized access to systems to cause data breaches, install malware, or perpetuate fraud.

The ubiquity of credential harvesting is partly due to its effectiveness: People are often the weakest link in cybersecurity. Phishing remains one of the most common methods, where attackers fool users into providing login details through fake websites or deceptive emails. Malware such as keyloggers can covertly capture keystrokes, allowing attackers to gather credentials as users log into various systems.

How a credential harvesting attack works
How a credential harvesting attack works

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Real-World Examples


According to this CloudStrike article, in April 2022, the ransomware-as-a-service platform “Hive” engaged in an elaborate attack, exploiting a technique known as pass-the-hash to target numerous clients of Microsoft Exchange Server. These clients spanned across various sectors, including energy, financial services, non-profits, and healthcare.

The attackers capitalized on a Microsoft Exchange Server vulnerability named ProxyShell. While Microsoft had already released a patch to address this ProxyShell issue, the delayed adoption of this update left many businesses vulnerable.

Through the ProxyShell vulnerability, the attackers were able to implant a nefarious web script that enabled them to execute malicious code on the affected Exchange servers. Once inside, the attackers utilized the pass-the-hash method, employing a tool called Mimikatz to extract the NTLM hash of user passwords. This granted them unauthorized control over the systems.

Following system infiltration, Hive conducted a systematic exploration of the network to understand its structure, harvested valuable data, and ultimately introduced ransomware to encrypt the data for extortion purposes.

Golden Ticket Attack

The infamous APT attack on the retail giant Target in 2013 is an instance where golden ticket tactics were exploited. After gaining initial entry through compromised third-party credentials, the attackers infiltrated Target’s network and eventually gained control of the domain controller. By generating a golden ticket, they were granted unhindered access to point-of-sale (POS) systems, leading to the extraction of around 40 million debit and credit card records.  More information on the attack can be found here.

Credential Harvesting

A large-scale credential harvesting attack was seen in the LinkedIn breach in 2012 reported by TrendMicro, where attackers exploited a weak SHA-1 hashing algorithm to harvest passwords. Initially, 6.5 million hashed passwords were posted on a Russian hacker forum. By 2016, it was revealed that a total of 117 million credentials had been compromised in the same breach, making it one of the biggest credential-harvesting incidents at the time.

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Active Directory Security Best Practices

Maintain a Secure Configuration

A secure configuration is critical to maintaining an AD environment that is resilient against cyber threats. Foundational elements like group policies, account policies, and privileged access management (PAM) are core to a well-defended AD. Cayosoft Administrator enhances these pillars of security by offering advanced automation and user empowerment features.

Group Policies and Account Policies

These policies are vital for controlling an AD environment, setting password requirements, and managing user permissions. Regularly update and enforce these policies to ensure a secure and regulated AD infrastructure.

Privileged Access Management (PAM)

PAM refers to the practice of providing strict oversight over privileged accounts within an organization. A strategic approach to PAM helps prevent unauthorized access and potential internal and external security threats. Cayosoft brings significant value when it comes to PAM:
  • Automating user creation, provisioning, and de-provisioning: Cayosoft Administrator streamlines user account management by automating the creation, maintenance, and decommissioning of AD accounts. This automation effectively eradicates delays or oversights in the management of account lifecycles, reducing the risk of security breaches associated with inactive or outdated user credentials.
  • Password self-service portal: The Cayosoft Password Self-Service Portal permits users to perform password changes and resets without administrator intervention. By enabling users through safe, predefined processes, organizations can reduce support costs and improve user satisfaction while ensuring no compromise in security policies.

Implement Monitoring and Auditing

Monitoring and auditing are essential to ensuring adherence to regulatory compliance within Active Directory ecosystems. This strategy encompasses diligent log analysis, robust monitoring tools, and thorough security auditing practices.

Cayosoft Guardian delivers real-time monitoring capabilities, offering organizations a powerful lens into their AD environments. It keeps track of all changes across AD infrastructures, providing administrators with detailed logs that are essential for diagnosing issues, tracing back unauthorized actions, and understanding the overall health of the AD space. 

Cayosoft offers the following essential features for maintaining a secure AD environment. Together, these features enable organizations to actively manage their security postures, respond to incidents with informed precision, and uphold stringent standards of compliance within their AD operations.

Continuous Monitoring

Cayosoft Guardian provides around-the-clock surveillance to detect and alert on critical events or deviations, enabling rapid response to potential security incidents.

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Cayosoft Guardian Dashboard

Comprehensive Logging

Detailed logs and contextual information about AD events offer insights into user activities, configuration adjustments, and access patterns. This data is pivotal for locating system vulnerabilities or identifying points of non-compliance.

The ability to perform extensive security audits is a key facet of Cayosoft solutions. With its robust reporting capabilities, Cayosoft Guardian aids in translating logged information into actionable intelligence.

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Email Activity Report

Real-Time Reporting

Cayosoft provides instant access to reports that summarize the current state of the AD implementation, flagging any practices that may not align with established security policies or regulatory standards.

Historical Auditing

By maintaining past configurations and user action records, Cayosoft Guardian allows for retrospective security audits—a vital component for thorough risk assessments and compliance verification.
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Cayosoft Guardian Change History View

Together, these features enable organizations to actively manage their security postures, respond to incidents with informed precision, and uphold stringent standards of compliance within their AD operations.

Adhere to Industry-Standard Administrator Practices

Effective administration practices form the cornerstone of AD security and operational efficiency. Implementing role-based access control (RBAC), adhering to the principle of least privilege, and enforcing multi-factor authentication (MFA) are vital practices that institutions adopt to secure their IT ecosystems. Cayosoft Administrator provides the tools necessary to seamlessly integrate these practices into the everyday management of AD and Azure AD environments.

By leveraging Cayosoft Administrator for RBAC, least privilege, and MFA, organizations can cultivate a secure, regulated, and efficient operational model that is resilient against both external and internal threats. These practices are described in more detail below.

Role-Based Access Control

Role-based access control (RBAC)RBAC is a method of regulating access to systems by assigning permissions to users based on their roles within an organization. Cayosoft Administrator allows you to create granular roles that align with the specific duties and responsibilities of different users within the enterprise. Cayosoft Administrator also streamlines the process of assigning and updating user permissions, ensuring that they are reflective of each individual’s current role, thereby optimizing the IT workforce’s productivity and mitigating insider threat risks.

Principle of Least Privilege

The principle of least privilege (PoLP) dictates that users be given the minimum levels of access—or permissions—needed to perform their job functions. Cayosoft Administrator aids in establishing and maintaining access policies that ensure that users have no more privilege than necessary, reducing the attack surface for potential security breaches. Permissions can be dynamically adjusted as roles shift within an organization, which is critical for maintaining a secure and adaptable IT environment.

Multi-factor authentication

Multi-factor authentication (MFA) adds an additional layer of security by requiring multiple methods of verification from users before granting access to a system. By integrating MFA protocols, Cayosoft Administrator provides a robust mechanism for validating user identities and preventing unauthorized access, which is a foundational requirement in today’s threat landscape.

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Securing Active Directory is a critical task due to its significant role in managing network resources and user access. Combating threats like pass-the-hash attacks, golden ticket attacks, and credential harvesting requires a solid understanding of both the risks and robust defense mechanisms available.

The key to this defense is the adoption of best practices such as secure configurations, vigilant monitoring and auditing, and prudent administrative protocols. Tools like Cayosoft Guardian enhance an AD administrator’s ability to monitor AD environments in real-time, providing detailed logs for tracking changes and triggering alerts for potential security incidents. Through comprehensive reporting functions, organizations can conduct thorough security audits to maintain adherence to regulatory standards.

Effective administration is bolstered by Cayosoft Administrator, enabling precise role-based access control (RBAC), enforcing the principle of least privilege, and solidifying identity verification through multi-factor authentication (MFA). These practices are essential to limiting the attack surface, securing user credentials, and preventing unauthorized access.

Through careful planning and execution of these strategies, IT security professionals can safeguard Active Directory, turning it from a potential point of vulnerability into a stronghold of organizational security. As threats evolve, so too must the approaches to AD security, with organizations continuously refining their practices to stay ahead of malicious actors.

As we have highlighted in this article, utilizing the right tools and methodologies is crucial. Cayosoft’s suite provides a proactive framework for real-time monitoring, security auditing, and strict adherence to administrative best practices, all of which contribute to building a resilient AD infrastructure.

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