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3/15/2013
02:45 PM
John H. Sawyer
John H. Sawyer
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Managing The Local Admin Password Headache

Forcing and managing unique passwords on Windows systems in an enterprise network can be challenging, but many tools are out there to help

In my past couple of blog entries, I wrote about some protection mechanisms for keeping the local administrator account safe on Windows systems. There are many reasons for wanting to keep the admin account safe. Some IT shops may say their primary reason is prevention against an attacker spreading further throughout the network, while others are more concerned about users elevating their privileges and modifying their systems, which introduces so many additional problems.

From a security perspective, I lean toward the former explanation, but the latter is also valid. I've seen all too often during penetration tests that we've performed that as soon as we get a local administrator on one system, all other systems fall, and we're minutes from domain admin. From there, we can pillage all we want in order to find the necessary information to take control of the network infrastructure, Unix environment, virtualization environment, etc.

While having unique passwords for the local administrator accounts on the Windows (and Unix) systems won't stop an experienced attacker, it will slow them down. That slowdown will hopefully be enough to cause the attacker to make a mistake, trigger antivirus, or generate a log event that allows you to detect him.

The following is a sampling of products that can assist in creating unique passwords for the local administrator accounts in a Microsoft Windows environment. Some of the commercial offerings are cross-platform and can also handle Unix-based systems, network devices, and more. For now, I'm more focused on the Windows side of things.

This is a list of some of the many commercial solutions I've come across as I've researched the topic for clients. Many "privileged identity management" solutions are available on the market that can manage local admin accounts.

This is a list of free and/or open-source applications and scripts that do everything from remotely change passwords on a list of systems to create random passwords via group policies. My "roots" are in a large university environment, so I like free and open-source tools, but you get what you pay for, so be careful with some of these.

Initially, I wasn't a fan of randomizing local passwords to something you don't know, but the more I thought about it over time, I realized that it doesn't matter. Obviously, if the system is part of a domain, then you should be able to do anything you need to remotely connect over the network. If, for some reason, there is a problem and the system cannot connect to the network, then there are plenty of tools out there that will let you boot the system and modify or bypass the local admin password so that you can get in.

If you have any practical experience with any of the tools above, please leave a comment or send me an e-mail. I've had clients implement several of the commercial solutions, but none of the free options. I'd be interested to hear how they've worked out.

John Sawyer is a Senior Security Analyst with InGuardians, Inc. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are his own and do not represent those of his employer. He can be reached at johnhsawyer@gmail.com and found on Twitter @johnhsawyer.

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Will N
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Will N,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/20/2013 | 2:54:37 PM
re: Managing The Local Admin Password Headache
A random unknown password is only more secure to the extent someone doesn't need administrative rights.-á The biggest nightmare for us is not having admin credentials when the user is remote.-á An executive that can't update their VPN software or otherwise fix something is a nightmare for IT staff.-á-á The first tenent of security is data availability and my experience is that the most common security failure is this self inflicted denial of availability when someone needs admin and can't get it.

This must be a difficult problem to solve since no one is really
offering anything that works to keep admin credentials both secure, and
available when needed.

USB or CD booting for a password reset with some ugly tool like Kon Boot isn't really a viable solution for tech challenged road warriors. They have to carry along a cd or usb every time they leave the network?-á Most people barely keep track of their power supply.
jeffmcjunkin
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jeffmcjunkin,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/20/2013 | 4:13:46 AM
re: Managing The Local Admin Password Headache
Jeff McJunkin here, the author of the relevant article.

No, that particular solution doesn't give the ability to look up the random password. Group Policy scripts are inherently viewable by standard users, so any programmatic way of setting the local Administrator passwords would be discoverable in a trivial fashion by any authenticated user.

PXE booting to something like "NT Password Reset" or Kon-Boot does the trick for me (relevant article:-áhttp://jeffmcjunkin.com/2012/0....

If you do end up setting per-desktop passwords, I'd recommend setting it to something like the first 16 characters of SHA1(desktop serial / identifier + known salt). Of course, the salt used in the hashing algorithm would become very important to keep secret.
kmasters787
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kmasters787,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/17/2013 | 4:43:32 AM
re: Managing The Local Admin Password Headache
Great timing on this article! -áI'll be pursuing a workable solution for my company very soon around unique local admin passwords. -áFor us, having the ability to find the random local admin password is a must. -á(Execs always on the move that get locked out when 1000's of miles away) -áDoes the "...Randomization via GPO" solution give the ability to-álook-up-áthe random password?
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