The Complete Active Directory Security Handbook – Exploitation – Detection and Migitation Strategies by PICUS

The Complete Active Directory Security Handbook - Exploitation - Detection and Migitation Strategies by PICUS

Active Directory (AD), introduced with Windows 2000 [1], has become an integral part of modern organizations, serving as the backbone of identity infrastructure for 90% of Fortune 1000 companies [2]. Active Directory is widely used by organizations for its simplicity and centralized management approach. It is an attractive solution for businesses as it makes it easier for employees to access resources and applications with a single set of credentials, which increases productivity and efficiency [3]. Additionally, its centralized management structure provides a single point of control for IT administrators, allowing them to manage users, computers, and access to resources in one place [4].
However, due to its widespread use and architectural limitations, Active Directory becomes a liability in the event of a security breach and becomes a priority target for adversaries seeking to elevate privileges, infect multiple systems, and launch devastating attacks such as data exfiltration, full system compromises, and ransomware.
The biggest challenges in recovery after an AD breach include identifying the source, determining the extent of damage, and creating a secure new environment. According to Verizon’s 2022 Data Breach Investigations Report [5], 80% of breaches come from external agents, and as IBM’s 2021 Cost of a Data Breach Report points out that once a domain admin is hacked, attackers can hide within your network for up to 277 days before detection, posing a significant threat [6].
The widespread use and ease of access to resources for employees make it challenging for organizations to retire outdated Active Directory (AD) and adopt more secure alternatives like Microsoft Azure Active Directory (AAD). The transition to AAD addresses some of AD’s limitations by automating administrative tasks such as user management and group membership assignment for improved efficiency [7]. However, the same security risks still apply, as a compromise of the identity infrastructure can have devastating consequences.
Adversaries can also exploit Microsoft Endpoint Manager to move laterally from an Azure tenant to an on-prem AD domain, creating attack paths between separate identity management environments [8].
The importance of Active Directory security cannot be overstated, and organizations must be prepared with disaster recovery plans and vigilant monitoring to stop attacks before the system is corrupted or becomes irreparable. The choice between AD and AAD will largely depend on the needs and resources of the organization, but the risk of compromise remains regardless of choice. The secure and effective use of Active Directory requires a clear understanding of the potential risks and a commitment to security practices and protocols.

Active Directory
Active Directory (AD) is a crucial directory service for managing network resources in Windows-based networks. It enables the centralization of management for various network resources, including user and computer accounts, resources, and security policies. In this way, AD facilitates efficient and secure management of networks in a hierarchical structure.
AD operates on a hierarchical structure consisting of domains at the top level and various objects nested within, such as users, computers, and groups. The structure is designed to provide an organized and efficient way of managing network resources, and it ensures that security policies are enforced consistently across the network.
AD uses Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP) for communication between domains and domain controllers. LDAP is a directory service protocol that enables the management of distributed directory services over an IP network. Additionally, AD employs Kerberos, a secure authentication protocol for authentication over a network.
This ensures that only authorized users and computers can access network resources, thereby enhancing network security.
To manage network resources efficiently, Active Directory uses Group Policy Objects (GPOs). GPOs are used to control and enforce security policies, software deployment, and other administrative tasks across the network. AD also provides support for Remote Procedure Calls (RPCs), allowing for remote management of network resources. This ensures that network administrators can efficiently manage network resources from a centralized location, regardless of the location of the resources themselves.
However, Active Directory is not immune to attacks, and attacks on AD can result in disastrous consequences for the network. Successful Active Directory attacks consist of three primary steps: discovery, privilege escalation through theft of valid account credentials, and gaining access to other computers in the network/domain. Once attackers gain a foothold in the target network, they immediately shift their focus to gaining elevated access to additional systems that will help them accomplish their final goal, such as encrypting and exfiltrating organizational data.
In summary, Active Directory is a vital component for managing and securing network resources in Windows-based networks. Its hierarchical structure and various features, such as LDAP and Kerberos, GPOs, and RPCs, provide efficient and secure management of network resources. To keep your network secure, it is critical to protect Active Directory from attacks by implementing strong security measures and keeping security protocols up-to-date to prevent unauthorized access to network resources.

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