Authentication on Microsoft Platforms

Security Accounts Manager (SAM)

Inside the Windows operating system is a database that stores security principals (accounts or any entity that can be authenticated). In the Microsoft world, these principals can be stored locally in a database known as the Security Accounts Manager (SAM). Credentials, passwords, and other account information are stored in this database; the passwords are stored in a hashed format. When the system is running, Windows keeps a file lock on the SAM to prevent it from being accessed by other applications or processes. When the system is running, however, a copy of the SAM database also resides in memory and can be accessed, given the right tools.

In order to improve security, Microsoft added some features designed to preserve the integrity of the information stored in the database. For example, a feature known as the SYSKEY was added starting in Windows NT 4.0 to improve the existing security of the SAM. The SYSKEY is nothing more than a fancy name for an encryption key that is used to partially encrypt the SAM and protect the information stored within. By default, this feature is enabled on all systems later than NT 4.0; although it can be disabled, it is strongly recommended that you do not do so. With the SYSKEY in place, credentials are safe against many offline attacks.

How Passwords Are Stored within the SAM
In Windows XP and later platforms, passwords are stored in a hashed format using the LM/NTLM hashing mechanisms. The hashes are stored in c:\windows\system 32\SAM . An account in the SAM looks like this:

Link:1010:624AAC413795CDC14E835F1CD90F4C76:6F585FF8FF6280B59CCE252FDB50 0EB8:::

The bold part before the colon is the LM hash, and the bold part after the colon represents the NTLM hash—both for a given password on a standard user account. Password crackers such as Ophcrack and L0phtcrack display and attempt to decipher these hashes, as do applications such as pwdump.

NTLM Authentication

NT LAN Manager (NTLM) is a protocol exclusive (proprietary) to Microsoft products. NTLM versions 1 and 2 are still very widely used in environments and applications where other protocols such as Kerberos are not available, but Microsoft recommends that its use be avoided or phased out.

NTLM comes in two versions: NTLMv1 and NTLMv2. NTLMv1 has been in use for many years and still has some support in newer products, but it has largely been replaced in applications and environments with at least NTLMv2 if not other mechanisms. NTLMv2 is an improved version of the NTLM protocol. It boasts better security than version 1, but it is still seen as relatively insecure and as such should be avoided as well.

Overall, the process of authentication with the NTLM protocol uses the following steps:
1. The client enters their username and password into the login prompt or dialog.
2. Windows runs the password through a hashing algorithm to generate a hash for the specific password.
3. The client transmits the username and hash to a domain controller.
4. The domain controller generates a 16-byte random character string known as a nonce and transmits it back to the client.
5. The client encrypts the nonce with the hash of the user password and sends it back to the domain controller.
6. The domain controller retrieves the hash from its SAM and uses it to encrypt the nonce it sent to the client.


On the Microsoft platform, version 5 of the Kerberos authentication protocol has been in use since Windows 2000. The protocol offers a robust authentication framework through the use of strong cryptographic mechanisms such as secret key cryptography. It provides mutual authentication of client and server.

The Kerberos protocol makes use of the following groups of components:
■ Key distribution center (KDC)
■ Authentication server (AS)
■ Ticket-granting server (TGS)

The process of using Kerberos works much like the following:
1. You want to access another system, such as a server or client. Because Kerberos is in use in this environment, a “ticket” is required.
2. To obtain this ticket, you are first authenticated against the AS, which creates a session key based on your password together with a value that represents the service you wish to connect to. This request serves as your ticket-granting ticket (TGT).
3. Your TGT is presented to a TGS, which generates a ticket that allows you to access the service.
4. Based on the situation, the service either accepts or rejects the ticket. In this case, assume that you are authorized and gain access.

Privilege Escalation

When you obtain a password and gain access to an account, there is still more work to do: privilege escalation. The reality is that the account you’re compromising may end up being a lower-privileged and less-defended one. If this is the case, you must perform privilege escalation prior to carrying out the next phase. The goal should be to gain a level where fewer restrictions exist on the account and you have greater access to the system. Every operating system ships with a number of user accounts and groups already pres- ent. In Windows, preconfigured users include the administrator and guest accounts.
Because it is easy for an attacker to find information about the accounts that are included with an operating system, you should take care to ensure that such accounts are secured properly, even if they will never be used. An attacker who knows that these accounts exist on a system is more than likely to try to obtain their passwords.

There are two defined types of privilege escalation, each of which approaches the problem of obtaining greater privileges from a different angle:

Horizontal Privilege Escalation An attacker attempts to take over the rights and privileges of another user who has the same privileges as the current account.

Vertical Privilege Escalation The attacker gains access to an account and then tries to elevate the privileges of the account. It is also possible to carry out a vertical escalation by compromising an account and then trying to gain access to a higher-privileged account.

One way to escalate privileges is to identify an account that has the desired access and then change the password. Several tools that offer this ability, including the following:
■ Active@ Password Changer
■ Trinity Rescue Kit
■ ERD Commander
■ Windows Recovery Environment (WinRE)
■ Password Resetter