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8 Ways Hackers Can Access Your Active Directory


The continual evolution of cyberattacks is a concern for any modern organization. Central to this subject is the security of Active Directory (AD). This is a hub of IT infrastructure integral to streamlining the daily operations of countless organizations, but its unparalleled significance makes it a prime target for cybercriminals. This article dives into the motivations behind these attacks, how these digital predators exploit AD, and ways you can fortify your defenses against them.

Why Do Hackers Attack Active Directory?

The appeal of AD is twofold: its centralized nature and the sheer wealth of information it holds. There are a few key reasons why attackers see AD as such a desirable target:

  • It is brimming with domain user accounts, computer accounts, and multifaceted group memberships. A successful breach means a hacker can get a panoramic view of all domain-joined computers in a network, streamlining their malicious activities. Additionally, the architecture detailing an organization’s domain offers a roadmap of its IT blueprint, proving invaluable for orchestrating targeted cyber onslaughts.

  • The presence of Domain Name System (DNS) and Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) within AD further amplifies its informational depth. Instead of externally scanning a network, attackers can draw most of their needed insights directly from a single AD server, expediting their efforts significantly.

  • The SYSVOL folder’s capability to determine the distribution of policies and scripts across domain-joined computers makes it a potent tool. Its replication mechanism assures network consistency, but in the wrong hands, this feature can be weaponized for widespread distribution of ransomware or other malicious payloads.

How Do Hackers Attack Active Directory?

Understanding the motivations behind hacking AD is pivotal, but it is equally crucial to be familiar with the modus operandi of these cyber assailants.

Here are some of the most common Active Directory hacking strategies that bypass defenses and exploit the vulnerabilities of AD.

1. Exploiting the SYSVOL Folder

As mentioned above, the SYSVOL folder is a useful tool for attackers, making it a prime target. The SYSVOL folder in an Active Directory environment acts as a central hub, storing crucial data, scripts, and Group Policy settings. This means that when malicious content is injected into SYSVOL, it is positioned in an environment where it can propagate to any machine drawing data from SYSVOL. The very design of SYSVOL ensures that all servers in a domain stay synchronized and consistent. This replication feature, while crucial for operational efficiency, can be turned against the system by astute hackers. By introducing ransomware or other malware into the SYSVOL folder, they ensure its rapid spread throughout the domain, making containment all the more challenging.

2. Privilege Escalation

Within Active Directory, there exists a hierarchical structure of access and control. While standard users enjoy basic privileges, administrative accounts stand a class apart, capable of dictating configurations, granting or revoking access, and even deleting objects.

For hackers, compromising such a high-privilege account is a massive win. Through careful monitoring of network traffic and user behavior, attackers discern which accounts boast elevated rights and they subsequently focus their efforts on these. A compromised high-privilege account not only provides extensive control over the AD environment but can also be leveraged to launch secondary attacks against connected systems.

3. Password Spraying and Credential Stuffing

The modern digital age is marked by vast data breaches that stem from highly evolved password-cracking strategies. Such methods, rather than relying on brute force, capitalize on human predictability and past data breaches.

Many individuals, often in disregard of security guidelines, opt for simple and easily guessed passwords. Attackers, well aware of this predictability, exploit it by employing volume-over-precision strategies like password spraying.

In addition, hackers can obtain lists of previously compromised usernames and passwords on the dark web. They often connect dots across services, accessing AD using credentials pilfered from an unrelated platform—a testament to the dangers of password reuse.

4. Taking Advantage of Misconfigurations

Active Directory, with its intricate configurations and detailed access controls, can be a double-edged sword. Its granularity, while ensuring fine-tuned access control, can cause issues if not handled with precision. A misconfiguration or incorrectly set permission on a crucial folder or domain object might cascade down, granting unintended access to attackers. Without a defense-in-depth approach, a single oversight, like neglecting multi-factor authentication, can cascade into a full-blown breach.

5. Phishing Attacks Targeting AD Credentials

Phishing remains one of the oldest yet most effective tricks in a hacker’s playbook. At its core, phishing thrives on deception. Modern phishing campaigns, leveraging techniques like domain spoofing, can be eerily authentic, making differentiation from genuine emails a challenge. Moreover, these deceptive emails often play on human psychology—instilling fear, promising rewards, or urging immediate action.

A more refined subset of phishing is “whale phishing.” Here, attackers meticulously target senior officials or those with extensive access. Given the authority and data these individuals possess, their credentials can be a gold mine, making the stakes immensely higher.

6. Exploiting Unpatched Vulnerabilities

Every software, regardless of its sophistication, may harbor vulnerabilities. Once unearthed, these vulnerabilities spark a race—vendors scramble to patch, while hackers hasten to exploit; however, there are also cases where hackers can begin targeting vulnerabilities before vendors become aware of them. These “zero-day exploits” are especially dangerous because it is impossible to apply official patches to prevent them. Also, they are often performed by advanced, well-funded threat actors. These vulnerabilities can challenge even the best defenses.

7. Pass-the-Ticket (PtT) and Pass-the-Hash (PtH) Attacks

The very mechanisms of user authentication can be a weak link, because they leave behind digital footprints: tokens, hashes, or tickets. Crafty attackers can purloin this data, impersonating legitimate users without ever deciphering a password.

Techniques like Pass-the-Hash or Pass-the-Ticket grant attackers this power. With these in their toolkit, hackers can obtain the required data to infiltrate networks, accessing resources discreetly and maintaining a foothold for prolonged periods.

8. Kerberoasting

Given their functional roles, service accounts in Active Directory often have distinct password policies, potentially making them more susceptible. These accounts, with their associated Service Principal Names , can be queried to reveal service tickets.

Attackers can extract these tickets and shift to offline environments to decrypt them, minimizing the chance of immediate detection. Given that service accounts often boast extended password expirations and might have elevated privileges, deciphering their passwords can offer attackers a potent launchpad for a myriad of attacks.

How to Protect Active Directory from Attackers

Considering how threat actors consider AD a prime target, and how they have many ways to attack it, a comprehensive and proactive approach to security is essential. Defending AD will require combining advanced security tools and foundational security practices.

  1. Conduct Auditing and Monitoring on a Scheduled Basis: Regularly audit AD settings and activities. Monitoring user activities, especially those with elevated permissions, can help detect and neutralize suspicious activities swiftly.

  2. Implement Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA): MFA adds an extra layer of security, ensuring that even if credentials get compromised, attackers have another barrier in their way.

  3. Don’t Overuse Elevated Privileges: If attackers compromise an account with elevated privileges, the results can be devastating. Implement the principle of least privilege, minimizing the number of users with elevated privileges. Restrict and monitor the activities of accounts associated with the Domain Admins group or Enterprise Admins group.

  4. Make Staff Training a Priority: A well-informed staff can be your first line of defense against phishing attacks. Regular training sessions can keep them updated on the latest threats.

Lock Down AD Security with Expert-Level Support

Active Directory, while being an indispensable asset, presents significant vulnerabilities if not secured meticulously. By understanding the reasons why cybercriminals target AD, as well as the methods they use to attack it, organizations can take proactive steps to bolster their defenses. Leveraging expert-level support can further harden AD security, ensuring that the heart of your IT infrastructure remains impenetrable. In a digital age characterized by evolving threats, taking the initiative to protect AD isn’t just advisable—it’s imperative.

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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