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5 Common Active Directory Attack Methods

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When it comes to the world of tech and online security, Active Directory (AD) is undoubtedly one of the major players. It functions as the backbone of many computer networks, enabling organizations to efficiently manage user access via authentication and authorization. But because AD is such a critical database, it can easily become a magnet for trouble.

Cyber threats are constantly evolving, and Active Directory attacks are becoming increasingly prevalent across all industries. This makes it essential to understand what an attack looks like, how it can impact your organization, and what you can do to stop it.

What is an Active Directory Attack?

An Active Directory attack is when an unauthorized individual tries to take advantage of the weak spots in an AD system. They might be after usernames and passwords, want to sneak in through badly set up access rights, or they could use other methods to get into the network when they’re not supposed to.

If AD gets attacked, the fallout can be significant. A breach can allow unauthorized individuals to get their hands on sensitive information, putting your organization – and your employees, clients, and vendors – at risk. Business operations can easily be derailed by an attack, and the situation can easily result in serious legal issues and long-term damage to your reputation.

Essentially, AD serves as the gatekeeper for your network, managing who has access and who is barred from entry. Once it is compromised, your organization has effectively handed attackers the keys to the castle.

Why Do Hackers Attack Active Directory?

Active Directory is like a goldmine for hackers, full of valuable information like usernames and passwords, details about the network structure, access rights, and more. All this data, plus the crucial role AD plays in running the network, makes it an appealing target for cyber attackers.

One of the factors that makes AD even more attractive is that it can serve as a “stepping-stone” for attackers. For example, they might start off with limited access to AD, but then find a way to upgrade their permissions to higher levels. With these higher permissions, they can move around the network more easily, gaining access to increasingly sensitive data and systems.

Another reason why hackers target AD is the complex nature of the database. Because AD can be complicated, it is not uncommon for organizations to set it up improperly, making mistakes like poor permission settings, out-of-date AD objects, or weak password rules. These flaws make it easier for attackers to exploit weak spots and sneak in.

Understanding why hackers do what they do is key to developing a strategy to defend AD and keep your organization safe from an attack. If you can effectively assess the factors that would make your AD appealing to an attacker, it becomes far easier to remediate the issues and lock down your database.

5 Common Active Directory Attacks to Know About

Now that we’ve laid the foundation of understanding Active Directory and its potential vulnerabilities, let’s delve deeper into the mechanisms behind AD attacks.

Here are five of the most prevalent methods that attackers employ to compromise Active Directory:

  1. Pass-the-Hash and Pass-the-Ticket Attacks

Pass-the-Hash and Pass-the-Ticket attacks are two particularly insidious strategies that cyber attackers use. In a Pass-the-Hash attack, perpetrators acquire the hashed version of a user’s password, bypassing the need to decrypt or learn the original password. They can then leverage these credentials to gain unauthorized access, much like a legitimate user.

In a similar vein, Pass-the-Ticket attacks involve the theft of a Kerberos ticket from a user. This “ticket” validates user permissions for specific services, and once stolen, it allows the attacker to masquerade as a validated user and access network services undetected.

  1. Kerberoasting

Kerberoasting exploits a feature in the Kerberos authentication protocol, allowing an attacker to decrypt service tickets without needing the service account’s password. When a user requests access to a service, a Service Principal Name (SPN) is used to identify the requested service. If the user has sufficient privileges, a service ticket is granted, encrypted with the service account’s NTLM hash.

Attackers target service accounts associated with an SPN, particularly those with weak passwords. By requesting a service ticket, they receive the ticket encrypted with the service account’s NTLM hash. From here, they can perform an offline brute-force attack to crack the hash and discover the password, without any alert triggered on the account they’re trying to compromise.

  1. Golden Ticket Attacks

Golden Ticket Attacks are a serious threat to Active Directory, as they provide attackers with unrestricted access to all parts of the domain. In essence, a Golden Ticket is a forged Ticket-Granting Ticket (TGT), which contains information about the user’s identity and group memberships.

The attack involves obtaining the Key Distribution Service Account’s (KRBTGT) NTLM hash, which is used to encrypt and sign all Kerberos tickets within the domain. With this hash, an attacker can create a Golden Ticket for any user, with any privileges (including Domain Administrator), and for any service. This effectively gives the attacker total control over the entire domain.

  1. Access Control List Attacks

Access Control List (ACL) Attacks exploit improperly set or misconfigured permissions in Active Directory. Each object within AD ( such as a user, computer, or a security group) has an associated ACL, defining who can access the object and the operations they can perform on it.

Attackers can subtly manipulate these lists to elevate their access rights without alerting network administrators. For instance, they might add their account to the ACL of an object, granting themselves specific permissions. If an attacker modifies the ACL of a high-privilege user or a critical AD object, they can gain considerable control over the AD environment.

  1. DNS Reconnaissance Attacks

DNS Reconnaissance Attacks rely on gathering information about the network’s structure from the DNS. As the phone book of the internet, DNS holds a wealth of information about domains, hosts, and IP addresses.

Attackers can use various techniques, like zone transfers or DNS enumeration, to scan this data. These techniques can reveal useful information, such as hostnames, IP addresses, and even details about the network topology or firewall. With this knowledge, attackers can identify weak spots in the network and plan more targeted and effective attacks.

Other Methods of AD Attacks

In addition to the common attacks detailed above, cyber criminals are constantly finding new ways to target vulnerabilities in AD. Here are a few other attack methods that could put your organization at risk:

  • Password Spraying: This is a type of brute force attack where the hacker tries a single password against multiple accounts before moving on to the next password. This approach allows the attacker to bypass account lockout mechanisms, making it a commonly used tactic for breaching Active Directory systems.
  • Local Loop Multicast Name Resolution (LLMNR): LLMNR is a protocol that allows both IPv4 and IPv6 hosts to perform name resolution for hosts on the same local link. Unfortunately, it is also prone to man-in-the-middle attacks. If a client asks for a hostname, and it can’t be resolved, an attacker can respond with their own IP, tricking the client into sending sensitive data to the wrong place.
  • Default/Hard-coded Credentials: It’s not uncommon for software or devices to come with default or hard-coded credentials. If these are not changed upon installation, they become an easy entry point for attackers. An attacker only needs to know these defaults (which are often freely available online), and they have easy access to the system.
  • BloodHound Reconnaissance: BloodHound is a tool that uses graph theory to reveal the hidden and often unintended relationships within an Active Directory environment. While it’s an excellent tool for defenders, it’s also a potent weapon in the hands of an attacker. By visualizing AD’s privilege relationships, an attacker can identify the shortest path to reach a high-value target.
  • NTDS.dit Extraction: The NTDS.dit file is the heart of AD, containing all information about users, groups, and passwords. If an attacker gets a copy of this file, they can extract hashes and crack them offline, revealing user passwords. This attack requires high privilege, but if successful, it gives an attacker access to all users’ passwords in the domain.

Active Directory Vulnerabilities that Enable Attacks

Active Directory’s power and complexity can also be its Achilles’ heel, offering multiple opportunities for attackers if not managed meticulously. Some of the common vulnerabilities include:

Weak Passwords and Password Policies

The strength of passwords and the robustness of password policies play a critical role in securing any network. Weak or predictable passwords can be easily cracked using methods like password spraying or brute force attacks. Similarly, password policies that don’t enforce complexity, regular changes, or account lockouts after failed attempts can make the system more susceptible to attacks.

Misconfigured Permissions and Rights

Correctly configuring permissions and rights is crucial in a well-secured AD environment. Misconfigurations, such as granting excessive privileges to users or groups, can offer opportunities for privilege escalation, enabling attackers to gain unauthorized access or control.

Lack of Monitoring and Detection Tools
Without robust monitoring and detection tools, malicious activities can go unnoticed, allowing attackers to operate freely within your network. A lack of network traffic analysis, anomaly detection, and intrusion detection systems can leave the environment vulnerable to all sorts of AD attacks.

Outdated or Unsupported Systems
Maintaining up to date software is essential. Outdated or unsupported systems may have unpatched vulnerabilities, which can be exploited by attackers. Furthermore, older systems may not support newer, more secure protocols or defenses, further increasing the risk.

Ransomware Attacks That Exploit Active Directory
Ransomware attacks often leverage Active Directory vulnerabilities to propagate across the network quickly. By exploiting weak passwords, misconfigured permissions, or unpatched systems, ransomware can gain a foothold and spread, encrypting data and demanding a ransom.

Several ransomware strains are known for their ability to exploit AD. For instance, Ryuk has been observed using AD to move laterally across the network and distribute its payload widely. Similarly, Sodinokibi (also known as REvil) can exploit AD misconfigurations or weak passwords to spread across the network.

What Happens if Active Directory is Compromised?

The compromise of Active Directory can lead to serious consequences for an organization.

First and foremost, data theft is a major concern. An attacker with access to AD can potentially access all data on the network, including sensitive data belonging to your customers or employees.

Service disruption is another threat, one that many organizations fail to consider. Attackers may disable crucial services, causing significant downtime. An operational disruption can impact your organization in multiple negative ways, including affecting public perception of the integrity of your brand, loss of revenue, and more.

In terms of dollars and cents, the cost of AD breaches can be astronomical. It’s not just the immediate financial loss due to theft or ransom payments, but also the cost of recovery, potential regulatory fines, loss of business, and damage to the company’s reputation.

A prime example of this was the global attack in 2017 perpetrated by the NotPetya ransomware, which exploited the EternalBlue vulnerability in Microsoft’s implementation of the Server Message Block protocol. Maersk, the world’s largest shipping company, fell victim to this attack, which led to the shutdown of operations in 76 port terminals around the world, causing hundreds of millions of dollars in losses.

Active Directory Defense: How to Protect Your AD

Given the critical role Active Directory plays in the network infrastructure, safeguarding it should be a priority. There are several methods to ensure AD security:

  • Effective AD security begins with implementing best practices, such as enforcing strong password policies, least privilege principle, and multi-factor authentication. Regular software updates and patches are also essential to fix any vulnerabilities that could be exploited.
  • Regular audits of your AD environment can help identify potential issues before they become serious problems. These audits can reveal insecure configurations, excessive permissions, and other vulnerabilities, providing an opportunity for remediation.
  • Staff training and awareness are paramount in preventing AD attacks. Employees should understand the risks associated with weak passwords, suspicious emails, or other potential entry points for attackers. A well-informed user is your first line of defense against any attack.
  • Emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning are offering new possibilities for AD protection. These tools can analyze vast amounts of data to identify unusual patterns or behaviors, providing early detection of potential attacks and aiding in rapid response.

Prioritize Active Directory Security Starting Now

Understanding Active Directory, its vulnerabilities, and common attack methods is crucial for any organization that relies on this technology. The potential damage of an AD compromise (from service disruption to data theft, and the resulting financial and reputational loss) underscores the importance of proactive security measures.

Investing time, resources, and attention in securing your Active Directory environment is not just a matter of IT best practices – it is an essential business strategy in today’s cyber threat landscape.

I hope you found this information helpful. As always, contact us anytime about your technology needs.

Until next time,


Meet the Author
Tim Burke is the President and CEO of Quest. He has been at the helm for over 30 years.
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