Protecting Active Directory Against Pass-the-Hash Attacks

What if someone could access your company’s most critical systems simply by possessing a piece of coded text? What if they could silently spread through your network, taking on the identities of employees and administrators, all without ever knowing actual passwords? Pass-the-Hash attacks make this nightmare scenario a reality. Hackers steal hashed credentials and use them to gain unauthorized access to existing accounts on the same network, usually in Active Directory, the heart of your network security.

In this article, we’ll discuss what Pass-the-Hash attacks are, explain how they work, the risks they pose to your Active Directory environment, and most importantly, how to protect against them.

What is a Pass-the-Hash Attack?

Much of hacking focuses on cracking passwords. Attackers either use programs to guess them through brute force attacks or trick users into revealing their passwords. However, Pass-the-Hash (PtH) attacks offer a less noticeable way to get into the network. These attacks are especially dangerous for Active Directory environments, the backbone of many organizations’ IT infrastructure.

Instead of cracking the actual password, attackers target its hash – a scrambled representation of the password. By stealing these hashes, cybercriminals can impersonate legitimate users and move freely within the network. This allows them to escalate privileges, steal sensitive data, or deploy ransomware without ever knowing the passwords.

Understanding Password Hashes

Accounts with extensive privileges are prime targets for attackers, as they offer a ‘shortcut’ to controlling your entire network if compromised. It’s also easy to make accidental changes with these accounts, so it’s important to be strict about who has them. Regularly review privileged users, especially groups like “Domain Admins” and “Enterprise Admins,” and remove anyone who doesn’t absolutely need that level of access.

The Pass-the-Hash Exploit

Attackers use tools like Mimikatz to extract these hashes from a compromised system’s memory or Active Directory database. Then, once they have a stolen hash, they use it to authenticate as a legitimate user. Since Windows relies on hash comparison, it trusts the presented hash, granting the attacker access without ever requiring the original password. This exploit often targets NTLM authentication, a legacy protocol in Windows, which has known vulnerabilities.

How Pass-the-Hash Attacks Work

Pass-the-Hash attacks usually unfold in a series of distinct steps. Understanding these stages is key to both detecting an attack in progress and protecting your Active Directory from being compromised in the first place. Let’s break down how these attacks often happen:

1. Initial Compromise

The attacker needs to establish a foothold within your network. This is often achieved through phishing (tricking users into clicking malicious links or downloading infected files), exploiting unpatched software vulnerabilities, or in rare cases, gaining physical access to a device on your network.

2. Hash Retrieval

Once they’ve gained access to the network, the attacker uses specialized tools to extract password hashes from memory. They do this by analyzing system memory for data resembling password hashes, or directly accessing the ntds.dit file which contains hashes for domain users.

3. Lateral Movement

They move from system to system, seeking further access and trying to escalate their privileges. Attackers may reuse compromised credentials across other accounts with the same password, dramatically expanding their access within the network.

4. Privilege Escalation

The goal is often to gain administrative credentials. Attackers search for misconfigurations like accounts with excessive permissions, outdated systems with known exploits, or even passwords stored in easily accessible locations. Elevated privileges could allow attackers to gain near-complete control over your network.

5. Data Exfiltration

With elevated privileges, the attacker can steal sensitive data for sale or blackmail, deploy ransomware throughout the network, or even maintain a long-term presence for future espionage or disruption.

Active Directory change monitoring can alert you if there’s unusual authentication activity, memory scraping attempts, and signs of lateral movement.

6. Unrestricted Access

Once attackers elevate their privileges, they may gain almost complete control over your network. They can create new accounts, disable security measures, and install backdoors for future access.

Detecting Pass-the-Hash Attacks

Pass-the-Hash attacks often blend in with normal network activity, making them difficult to detect. Specialized tools and careful analysis are needed to uncover these threats. Here are key indicators to monitor:
  • Unusual Login Patterns: Unexpected logins from unusual locations, outside normal working hours, or multiple rapid logins from a single account can indicate illegitimate activity.
  • Unusual Service Creation: Attackers often create remote services to facilitate lateral movement. Monitoring for the creation of unexpected services, especially from unusual accounts, is crucial.
  • Memory Scraping Detection: Suspicious processes (such as Mimikatz or similar tools) attempting to access memory locations where password hashes are stored should raise immediate red flags.
  • Spike in Authentication Traffic: A sudden surge in authentication requests, especially a mix of successful and failed logins, can indicate the early stages of a Pass-the-Hash attack in progress.

Protecting Active Directory Against Pass-the-Hash Attacks

Pass-the-Hash attacks exploit weaknesses in how permissions and access are structured within your network. Implement a strategic defense by segmenting your network, enforcing strict privilege controls, and safeguarding user credentials.

Strategic Measures

  • Tiered Administrative Model: Segment your network, preventing attackers from easily escalating privileges. Limit admin rights on workstations and lower-tier servers.
  • Network Segmentation: Restrict lateral movement by isolating critical systems.
  • LAPS Implementation: The Local Administrator Password Solution (LAPS) ensures unique passwords across machines, lessening the impact of a single compromised account.
  • Enforce Least Privilege: Avoid granting users more permissions than strictly necessary. Minimize local admin rights and domain admin usage. Tools like Cayosoft Administrator can simplify this process by enabling granular delegation of Active Directory permissions.
  • Use Credential Guard: In newer Windows versions, Credential Guard helps protect NTLM hashes with additional security measures.
  • Disable Legacy Authentication: Where possible, opt exclusively for stronger Active Directory authentication protocols like Kerberos.

Essential Steps to Defend Your AD from PtH Attacks

  • Regular AD Monitoring: Monitor Active Directory for signs of unusual activity. Use dedicated tools like Cayosoft Guardian to look for anomalies like unexpected login patterns, creation of new user accounts, changes in permissions, or unusual service installations. This helps you catch potential attacks before they escalate into major breaches.
  • System and Software Patching: Make sure all your systems and software are up-to-date with the latest security patches. Attackers often exploit known vulnerabilities as their initial entry point. Diligent patching significantly lessens the potential attack surface of your network.
  • Secure Privileged Accounts: Enforce a multi-layered approach for privileged accounts like domain admins and service accounts. This includes Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA), dedicated administrative accounts for separate functions, and restricted logins from only hardened management stations.
  • AD-Specific Backups: Maintain dedicated, isolated backups of Active Directory data. In the worst-case scenario of a successful attack, a clean backup allows you to restore systems to a known good state, minimizing disruption and data loss.

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Recovery from Pass-the-Hash Attacks

Recovering from a Pass-the-Hash attack requires immediate steps to contain the breach and minimize damage to your network. These include:
  • Isolate Infected Systems: Contain the attack’s spread within Active Directory by quickly isolating compromised systems and preventing further lateral movement within the network.
  • Reset Compromised Passwords: Change the passwords of all potentially compromised accounts, especially privileged ones once the attack is contained.
  • Identify the Initial Attack Vector: Understand how the attacker gained access (phishing, vulnerability exploit, etc.). Patch and remediate this entry point to prevent the attack from recurring.
  • Recover Active Directory (if needed): In severe cases, Pass-the-Hash attacks can cause corruption or widespread damage to Active Directory.

Protect Active Directory from Pass-the-Hash with Cayosoft

Pass-the-Hash attacks present a persistent threat to Active Directory and, by extension, your entire network. They bypass traditional password security measures, making detection and prevention a unique challenge. By understanding the methods used in these attacks, the risks they pose, and the strategies for protection, you can significantly reduce your organization’s vulnerability.


Active Directory often relies on the legacy NTLM authentication protocol, which is vulnerable to Pass-the-Hash attacks. Attackers can exploit this protocol to impersonate users, move laterally through the network, and ultimately gain access to critical resources and sensitive data.
Look for indicators like unusual login activity (locations, times, multiple rapid logins), unexpected service creation, suspicious attempts to access system memory, and spikes in authentication traffic. However, Pass-the-Hash attacks can be subtle, so specialized monitoring tools are valuable for detection.

A complex approach is crucial. This includes network segmentation, disabling legacy authentication protocols (where possible), enforcing least privilege, implementing multi-factor authentication (MFA) for privileged accounts, regular AD auditing, using tools like Cayosoft Guardian, and employees security awareness training.

Don't Leave Your Active Directory Vulnerable

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