Defending Active Directory Against AdminSDHolder Attacks

Active Directory Permissions Attack: Hackers Gain Persistence with AdminSDHolder

Active Directory (AD) tends to be a common target for hackers, as it controls the security and infrastructure for most IT systems. Attackers aim to get privileged access to a Windows Server Active Directory and remain undetected for as long as possible. These techniques used by hackers are also called persistence. With persistence, hackers are able to stay on a compromised system without having to find new ways to reenter it. In order to gain persistence, attacks typically replicate behavior of the Domain Controller (DC), a server responsible for authenticating and authorizing user access on the network. In this blog, we will look at one of the persistence techniques used to gain access to privileged user accounts and groups by using objects in Active Directory, more specifically AdminSDHolder.

What is AdminSDHolder?

AdminSDHolder is an object in Active Directory, that by default, delegates permissions for certain privileged user accounts. According to Microsoft, the purpose of the AdminSDHolder object is “… to provide “template” permissions for the protected accounts and groups in the domain. AdminSDHolder is automatically created as an object in the System container of every Active Directory domain. Its path is: CN=AdminSDHolder,CN=System,DC=,DC=”. For more documentation from Microsoft on AdminSDHolder, and Protected Accounts and Groups in Active Directory, click here.

The access control lists (ACL) of the AdminSDHolder object acts as a template of security descriptors, copying permissions to all protected groups in Active Directory and their members. A security descriptor is a data structure that contains information related to the access control for a specific object, like owner, discretionary access control list (DACL), system access control list (SACL), security IDs (SID), and more. In other words, AdminSDHolder defines the permissions set on protected accounts and groups like Administrators, Domain Admins, Enterprise Admins, Global Admins, etc.

Security Descriptor Propagator (SDProp) is a scheduled process on the PDC Emulator (PDCE) that propagates permission changes made to AdminSDHolder object to the permissions of protected accounts and group and resets those objects’ permissions to match AdminSDHolder, if they differ. The SDProp service does this about every 60 minutes.

How Do Attackers Use AdminSDHolder and SDProp to Gain Persistence?

Attacker will abuse the SDProp process in Active Directory to establish a continual point of entry into Active Directory, also known as the AdminSDHolder modification persistence technique. As discussed above, SDProp compares permissions on protected objects, like the Domain Admins group, against those set in the AdminSDHolder ACL. If they differ, SDProp will replace the permissions on that protected object with those defined on AdminSDHolder. So, in an AdminSDHolder modification, once an attacker has gained administrative permissions, they typically will add a new user to AdminSDHolder, by modifying the ACL. Then, the next time the SDProp process runs, these new privileges will be applied to all protected objects.

If the organization happens to detect this change and tries to reverse it, 60 minutes later SDProp runs again and 

AdminSDholder persistence technique

reapplies the attacker’s permissions, as it will restore the ACLs listed in AdminSDHolder, previously modified by the attacker. In order for the organization to fix this and make the changes permanent, they would need to identify that the AdminSDHolder had been compromised and revoke the ACL changes made by the attacker. Unfortunately, with many organizations, in the meantime the attacker has collected enough sensitive data to cause serious financial and even reputational damage.

Read our Active Directory Management Tools guide to learn about managing Active Directory with native and third-party tools.

Best Practices to Prevent Active Directory Permission Attacks like AdminSDHolder

The AdminSDHolder object can provide attackers opportunities to exploit user accounts and groups in order to gain access to an organizations’ valuable data. Proper management of privileges and permissions is required to mitigate the risk of unauthorized modification and reduce vulnerabilities. A common manual technique, using PowerShell and an LDAP filter, is to look at the adminCount attribute. Protected groups and their members are set to 1 within this attribute, so by looking at all objects with the value of 1, you can make sure those that have privileged permissions are supposed to. Unfortunately, this technique tends to be more of a reactive measure. Instead, we’ve gathered some best practices to allow you to prevent and protect your privileged identities, increasing security and control over your Active Directory.

Best Practice #1

Monitor the AdminSDHolder object for unauthorized or unnecessary permissions, including any change, specifically security changes. Continuous monitoring of your Active Directories for suspect changes allows you to detect critical changes, identify privilege abuse, and efficiently remediate security threats.
Cayosoft Solution

Relying solely on native tools, like event logs, can cause incomplete visibility leading to missed threats. Event logs are also often a target for attacks in order to blind native detection. With Cayosoft Guardian, easily monitor changes and automatic rollback changes made you Active Directories and to the AdminSDHolder object. Receive real-time alerts of suspicious activity to quickly identify and block unwanted privilege escalation before attackers have a chance to act, preventing costly compromise and potential downtime.

See how to monitor and restore changes to AdminSDHolder with Cayosoft Guardian.


Best Practice #2

Embrace the principle of least privilege (PoLP). The principle of least privilege is an information security concept to protect high-value data and assets by limiting access, giving users the minimum level of permissions necessary to perform their job function. Reduce the number of accounts with privileges in Active Directory to limit access and minimize areas for potential compromise.
Cayosoft Solution

Effective implementation of a least privilege model requires a way to centrally manage and secure user accounts and groups but also must include flexibility to properly balance control with operational efficiency and end-user needs. Cayosoft Administator uses roles and rules to enable least privileged delegation, targeting day-to-day admins, help desk, and end-users.

Ready to Learn More?

Download a free 25-day trial of the Cayosoft Management and Protection Suite featuring both Administrator and Guardian, and see for yourself how Cayosoft’s seamless management allows you to secure and protect you on-premises Active Directory, hybrid Active Directory, and Azure Active Directory.

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