Lateral movement is one of the tactics used during an attack and is normally successfully due to some kind of credential theft that has happened at some point in time during the course of the attack. In order to materialize this tactic there is a technique called pass-the-hash that has been used for long time. This was initially discovered by Paul Aston in 1997 on Unix SAMBA but became more mainstream in 2000 when Hernan Ochoa released a paper “Modifying Windows NT Logon Credential”. This technique evolved and it became very popular in 2007 when he released the Pass the Hash toolkit. This tool brought the pass-the-hash technique mainstream because it could be easily executed on Windows systems. In the same year, Marcus Murray from TrueSec presented another tool during TechED that could leverage this same attack technique. Soon after that Ivan Bütler from Compass Security made an interesting paper about it. Also in the same year Benjamin Delpy `gentilkiwi` a French security researcher – less know at the time – released a tool called mimikatz.
The pass the hash attack takes advantage of cached credentials stored in the system which are used to authenticate to other resources in the network. Details are well explained by Skp Duckwall and Chris Campbell on their BlackHat 2013 paper “Microsoft has a credential problem” describing the issues that Microsoft has with credentials due to single sign on solutions that are in place which also affects smartcards For convenience and to improve customer experience, Microsoft behind the scenes implements different methods that allow a user to only type its username and password once. This permits the user to login into SharePoint, network shares, read email, etc without needed to constantly provide its credentials avoiding Mark Russinovich “credential fatigue” problem. Outcome of this convenience is that credentials are cached. Meaning that using these type of technique, the attacker with local admin or system privileges is able to retrieve the credentials from the process memory (LSASS) in a hash representation. There are other places in storage where the credentials could be retrieved like the SAM database in a standalone environment or from the NTDS.dit file in an Active Directory domain. Then those password representations could be reused to spread across the network and increase attacker foothold. The usage of the some of the aforementioned tools are illustrated on SANS reading room on a paper from Bashar Ewaida.
Time has passed and in 2011 Hernan Ochoa strikes again by releasing a the evolution of the pass the hash toolkit into a new tool called Windows Credential Editor (WCE) which executes on 32bits and 64bits windows systems and can dump the NTLM/LM hashes of the credentials cached in the system by injecting into LSASS process or just by reading memory. The novelty was that this tool introduced a new technique called pass the ticket which is the equivalent to the pass the hash but applied to the Kerberos tickets instead of NTLM/LM hashes. This technique is interesting because it can escalate the privileges on the attacker without cached credentials on the machine. Instead it can request Kerberos tickets that could be used for a period of 10 hours and be injected into an attacker session.
Also in 2011, Benjamin Delpy was able to demonstrate that not only password representations could be retrieved from memory but also the clear text passwords by taking advantage on how the credential provided for digest authentication works in Windows. For example If one user tries to authenticate to a website using the digest authentication method using a web browser it sends a computed hash trough the network. However, in order to compute this hash the digest credential provider (wdigest.dll) uses 3 elements and one is the password which means it needs to be stored in memory in order to be used. Since then Benjamim has been further developing his research and mimikatz 2.0 is the last version of the tool focusing on Windows 2008R2 and 8.1. The tool has also been incorporated into Metasploit framework and it can also work offline by reading the LSASS memory dump that you can retrieve using process dump. This method was even incorporated as a plug-in of the memory forensics tool Volatility.
But Benjamim went even further with his research and he pleased the security community with the implementation of another novel technique that uses kerberos tickets to impersonate any user in the domain and defeat the 10 hours lifespan. This technique is known as the Golden Ticket (counterfeit Kerberos ticket) and takes advantage on the way Microsoft Kerberos implementation works and how it relies on the KRBTGT account. The secret key used to sign all Kerberos TGTs is the KRBTGT hash. This technique permits creating a valid Kerberos ticket that allows impersonation of any user in the Active Directory domain. If you have some time try the tool – “The tool is great and It can extract plaintexts passwords, hash, PIN code and kerberos tickets from memory. mimikatz can also perform pass-the-hash, pass-the-ticket or build Golden tickets”
Why can’t Microsoft patch this problem? This works as designed and relies on current trust models. If you are logged in then the system has your credentials stored in memory to be used across the different credential providers to perform actions on behalf of the user and to facilitate single sign on. However, In order to mitigate the risk of this attack scenario, Microsoft created a taskforce called Pass the Hash workgroup that was mandated to identify tools, policies, best practices that companies could use to reduce the exposure to this attack. One of the outcomes of this taskforce were ways to mitigate the exposure to this attack that include restrict and protect high privileged credentials, restrict local accounts with administrative privileges and restrict inbound traffic on the host firewall. This and other recommendations are greatly explained in more detail in the white paper “Mitigating Pass-the-Hash (PtH) Attacks and Other Credential Theft Techniques.”
Many experts believe that a well-resourced and determined adversary will usually be successfully in attacking systems, even if the target has invested in its defensive posture. In case you might have been compromised and you were able to contain the damage, here are some recommendations on how to restore the active directory service to its state before the attack. Of course everyone wants to avoid these scenarios. One defense strategy that we (defense side) have is to continually increase the costs associated to executing the attack. The National Security Agency/Central Security Service. Information. Assurance. Directorate released a paper “Reducing the Effectiveness of Pass-the-Hash” that helps mitigates the exposure to this type of attack. The Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-EU) for the EU institutions just released a white paper “Protection from Kerberos Golden Ticket” that contains good recommendations as well.