3/15/2013
02:45 PM
John H. Sawyer
John H. Sawyer
Commentary

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 [email protected] and found on Twitter @johnhsawyer.

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