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Why Ransomware Organizations Target Local Active Directory


Active Directory (AD) is an invaluable tool for modern-day organizations, especially as interconnectedness and instant data access become more crucial than ever before; however, AD is also a major target for cyber criminals, especially ransomware organizations. With increasingly advanced attacks zeroing in on AD infrastructures at an alarming rate, it is massively important for organizations to better understand the anatomy of these ransomware active directory attacks.

Let’s take a closer look at the key reasons why ransomware organizations have AD in their crosshairs, and what you need to know to protect your organization.

The Appeal of Active Directory for Ransomware Attackers

Active Directory (AD) is a powerful, centralized IT infrastructure that helps facilitate many facets of an organization’s digital operations; however, there are a handful of critical reasons that make AD attacks so appealing to digital predators.

Active Directory’s Central Repository Contains a Wealth of Information

Through the eyes of cyber criminals who are comparing the “worth” of attacking various IT infrastructures, AD emerges as a veritable goldmine—especially for attackers using ransomware—because it acts as a central hub for domain user accounts, computer accounts, and a diverse array of group memberships. A successful breach into AD effectively gives attackers a detailed inventory of all domain-joined computers within a network, streamlining their malicious endeavors.

But it’s not solely about user and computer accounts. The architecture of an organization’s domain, a roadmap of its IT environment, is also detailed within AD. In addition, infiltrating AD lets attackers get information from Domain Name System (DNS) and Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP). These services, while essential for seamless network operations, inadvertently offer added insights into the enterprise in the event of a compromise. This eliminates the need for cyber attackers to externally scan a network, since most information can be sourced from a singular AD server.

The SYSVOL Folder’s Replication Power Makes it the Perfect Distribution Channel

The SYSVOL folder isn’t just another directory within the AD infrastructure; it plays a pivotal role in determining how policies and scripts get distributed across domain-joined computers. Through its inherent replication mechanism, SYSVOL ensures consistency across the network; however, this efficiency becomes a double-edged sword in the hands of cyber adversaries.

One can draw a parallel between ransomware distribution and how a virus spreads in the physical world. The SYSVOL folder, with its expansive reach and influence over domain entities, makes it the ideal candidate for a “super spreader” of malicious payloads.

A particularly notorious example is the “SavetheQueen” ransomware strain, which maliciously leverages the SYSVOL folder to encrypt files. The attackers tap into domain admin privileges, then utilize the SYSVOL share on the domain controller to rapidly spread malware throughout the domain. Because domain controllers are connected to virtually every system, they act as the ideal hub for distributing malicious code. Victims receive a ransom message, threatening them with permanent loss of access to all encrypted files unless the hackers’ demands are met.

Cyber Criminals Can Escalate Privileges through Active Directory

When ransomware attackers target AD, they aim for a complete takeover. Escalation of privileges is a key part of this scheme. Active Directory, unfortunately, offers a pathway to achieve this. It contains high privilege user accounts and groups, like the Enterprise Admins group or Domain Admins group. For ransomware attackers, getting access to one of these accounts or groups is like hitting the jackpot, because such privileges give them almost unchecked power. They can take ownership of any object across the domain, modify attributes, change configurations, and more.

Certain ransomware strains are specifically designed to exploit these high privileges. Consider the tactics employed by “LockBit 2.0.” Upon infiltrating the AD, this ransomware actively creates Group Policy Objects (GPOs) to further deploy itself to AD client computers. Moreover, it ingeniously uses its newly-acquired privileges to manipulate Windows Defender configurations, thereby avoiding detection. It can halt specific services and even execute PowerShell scripts, all while under the guise of a legitimate high-level user.

An AD Takedown Can Paralyze an Entire Organization

While ransomware’s primary motive is often data encryption for ransom, some strains aim to inflict maximum operational chaos. By targeting and crippling an organization’s AD, these ransomware strains can bring business operations to a screeching halt. Imagine a scenario where every authentication request, every user login, every file access is abruptly interrupted—the ramifications are incredibly serious.

Compounding this issue is a glaring oversight by many enterprises: the backup (or lack thereof) of their AD infrastructure. While there’s increased awareness about the significance of data backups, many organizations underestimate the importance of backing up their AD, erroneously relying on replication for resiliency. But replication, while ensuring data availability, can also unwittingly propagate ransomware, spreading its malicious tentacles across domain controllers in mere minutes.

How Do Hackers Attack Active Directory?

Now that we know why cyber criminals target AD, how do they execute these attacks? There are multiple ways, and understanding these mechanisms is the first step towards fortifying your organization’s defenses.

1. Credential Harvesting and Brute Force Attacks
Hackers often start by targeting the weakest link: human users. By employing techniques like phishing or deploying keyloggers, attackers can harvest user credentials. With these in hand, they can attempt to gain unauthorized access to the AD environment.

Brute force attacks are another method. This type of attack involves trying numerous password combinations in rapid succession, hoping to chance upon the correct one. Even though these methods sound basic, they are surprisingly effective, especially when organizations lack robust password policies or multi-factor authentication (MFA).

2. Kerberoasting
An advanced technique, Kerberoasting exploits the Kerberos authentication protocol. Once an attacker gains initial access, they can request service tickets for service accounts. These tickets, when decrypted, can potentially reveal the service account’s plaintext password. Given that many service accounts possess elevated privileges and often have static passwords, this method can be particularly devastating.

3. Pass-the-Ticket (PtT) and Pass-the-Hash (PtH) Attacks
Both these techniques revolve around sidestepping the need for a plaintext password. In a PtT attack, cybercriminals use valid Kerberos tickets to impersonate authorized users. Conversely, PtH involves attackers leveraging the NTLM hash of a user’s password, allowing them to authenticate as that user without ever knowing the actual password.

4. AD Object Permissions Exploitation
Often overlooked, AD object permissions can be the perfect vulnerability for attackers to use. By exploiting misconfigured permissions, they can modify AD objects, potentially granting themselves elevated rights or even compromising the integrity of the entire AD environment.

5. Lateral Movement and Privilege Escalation
Once inside the network, attackers seek to move laterally, probing for vulnerabilities and attempting to escalate their privileges. Techniques like “Golden Ticket” attacks exploit Kerberos tickets, granting attackers domain admin rights, while “Silver Ticket” attacks target specific services. Such escalations can lead to an attacker gaining a strong foothold, making eviction challenging.

What Happens if Active Directory is Compromised?

Because AD is the linchpin of most organizational IT infrastructures, orchestrating identity and access management across the domain, a compromise to this system can have ramifications that ripple across the entire organization.

Immediate Impacts

  • Unauthorized Access: The most immediate and evident consequence is unauthorized access. With AD credentials in the wrong hands, malicious actors can impersonate legitimate users, gaining access to sensitive data, financial resources, and proprietary information.

  • Disruption of Services: Depending on the nature and intent of the attack, services integral to business operations—like email, shared drives, and internal applications—may be rendered inaccessible, causing significant disruptions.

  • Malware Propagation: A compromised AD can serve as a launchpad for the distribution of malware, including ransomware, across the domain. The systematic nature of AD means that such threats can spread rapidly, infecting a vast number of systems.

Short-Term Impacts

  • Erosion of Trust: A breach, especially one that becomes public knowledge, erodes trust. Clients, partners, and employees may begin to question the organization’s commitment to data security, impacting relationships and partnerships.

  • Financial Ramifications: Beyond the potential theft of financial assets, organizations might face costs associated with breach mitigation, ransom payments (if it’s a ransomware attack), and potential legal fees stemming from data privacy violations.

  • Operational Downtime: As IT teams work around the clock to contain the breach and restore systems, there’s likely to be significant operational downtime. This halt in operations can lead to backlogs, delayed deliveries, and lost opportunities.

Long-Term Impacts

  • Reputational Damage: One of the most insidious impacts of a compromised AD is the long-term damage to an organization’s reputation. Restoring trust with clients, partners, and the public can be a prolonged endeavor, with some stakeholders potentially never regaining full confidence.

  • Increased Operational Costs: Post-breach, organizations often must ramp up their cybersecurity efforts. This can involve investing in new technologies, hiring additional personnel, and undergoing comprehensive cybersecurity audits–all contributing to higher operational costs.

  • Regulatory Repercussions: In today’s regulatory environment, data breaches can lead to severe penalties. Organizations might face hefty fines, especially if personal data is compromised and regulatory bodies like GDPR or CCPA are involved.

  • Persistent Threat: Even after the immediate threat is neutralized, backdoors or undetected malware remnants might linger in the system. These can act as ticking time bombs, potentially granting attackers access in the future or si.phoning off data over time.

Best Practices for Protecting Active Directory

In the face of the alarming threats targeting Active Directory (AD), businesses must adopt a multi-pronged approach to fortify their AD infrastructure. While the motivation and mechanics of ransomware attackers are evolving at a breakneck pace, a well-established set of best practices can offer substantial protection against these formidable challenges.

Here’s a breakdown of the steps organizations should consider to secure their Active Directory:

Regularly Audit and Monitor AD Activities

Regular monitoring provides a real-time snapshot of AD’s health and activities. Implement auditing tools that track AD changes, detect anomalous behaviors, and send instant alerts in case of suspicious actions. By keeping a vigilant eye, organizations can respond to threats promptly, reducing potential damage.

Limit Privileged Access

Not every user requires admin-level privileges. Implement the principle of least privilege (PoLP) to ensure that users have just the right amount of access they need to perform their tasks. Regularly review and prune excessive permissions. Remember, the fewer high-privilege accounts, the less appeal there is for hackers.

Deploy Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA)

MFA adds an extra layer of protection, ensuring that even if a hacker gets hold of user credentials, they’re still a step away from gaining access. By mandating a second form of identification, organizations make unauthorized access exponentially more challenging.

Implement Regular Backups and Testing

Regular backups, especially of the AD infrastructure, are invaluable. But making backups isn’t enough; organizations should periodically test these backups for integrity. Ensure that backups are stored in secure, off-site locations, safe from ransomware’s reach.

Keep Systems Patched and Updated

Exploits often target vulnerabilities in outdated software. Ensuring that all systems, including those associated with AD, are up- –to -date is critical. Adopt a routine patch management process and stay informed about the latest security updates.

Educate and Train Staff

Humans are often the weakest link in cybersecurity. Regular training sessions can ensure that staff are aware of the latest phishing tactics, understand the importance of strong password practices, and are familiar with the protocols to follow in case of suspected breaches.

Use Advanced Threat Protection Tools

Consider deploying tools that offer advanced threat protection capabilities. These tools use AI and machine learning to detect, alert, and often auto-resolve potential threats based on evolving patterns.

Regularly Review AD Architecture

As organizations evolve, so do their AD requirements. Periodic reviews can help identify legacy components that no longer serve a purpose or security gaps that might have crept in over time. A streamlined and updated AD architecture minimizes vulnerabilities.

Implement Network Segmentation

By dividing the network into segments, you ensure that even if one section gets compromised, the contagion doesn’t spread uncontrollably. This limits lateral movement, a common tactic used by hackers once they gain an initial foothold.

Collaborate and Stay Informed

Cybersecurity is a dynamic field. Engage with communities, attend cybersecurity webinars, and collaborate with experts to stay ahead of emerging threats and to learn about the latest best practices.

By implementing a mix of technological solutions and human-centric strategies, organizations can build a sustainable plan for AD protection.

Deploy Your Active Directory Ransomware Protection Strategy Now

Active Directory is a major player within an organization’s IT framework, serving as an essential channel for access, identity, and resources. But at the same time, AD can also be an extremely valuable target for ransomware attackers. The repercussions of a compromised AD can be devastating, going far beyond immediate IT disruptions to have lasting effects on your organization’s reputation and bottom line. This makes it crucial to move from a stance of reactive problem-solving to proactive prevention.

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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