Figure 1: The ACL Editor
In this series of articles, I will discuss the Windows Access Control model and its implementation in Windows NT and 2000. I intend this series to be four parts long. I originally intended this series of articles to be just one part long (I was only going to write about the Windows-2000 style ACL editor), but there is so much you need to know about Windows Access Control, I might as well devote an entire series dedicated to the topic.
This first article serves as an introduction to ACL-based Authorization (from a programming point of view) in Windows NT and how the access control model is implemented. If you have never programmed with Windows security, or are just starting, this first article is for you. Although this first article will display structures in C, you should read this article even if you aren't programming in C. It contains concepts relevant to all programmers.
This series of articles isn't meant as a primer on security administration (there are plenty of articles, websites, courses and books on that). Rather, it is intended to discuss the Windows NT Security model from a programmatic perspective. I will already assume you know how to set permissions on files, registry keys, and are quite proficient with the ACL editor. I will also assume you know what users are and what groups are.
Access Control is not available in 16-bit Windows or Windows 95/98/ME.
Table Of Contents
The table of contents is for the entire series.
- Part 1 - Background and Core Concepts. The Access Control Structures
- The Security Identifier (SID)
- The Security Descriptor (SD)
- The Access Control List (ACL)
- Choosing a good discretionary access control list
- Windows 2000 Inheritance Model
- The Token
- A Note on the Security Descriptor Definition Language
- Coming Up
- Part 2 - Basic Access Control programming
- Choosing your language
- Fun with SIDs
- Which Groups are you a member of?
- Enabling Token Privileges
- Dissecting the Security Descriptor
- Walking an Access Control List
- Creating an Access Control List
- Do I Have Access?
- Creating and Editing a Secure Object
- Making Your Own Classes Secure
- Toy Programs Download
- Part 3 - Access Control programming with .NET v2.0
- A history of .NET security.
- Reading a SID in .NET.
- Whoami .NET.
- Privilege handling in .NET.
- Running as an unprivileged user in .NET.
- Obtaining and editing a security descriptor in .NET, and applying it to an object.
- Access checks in .NET.
- NetAccessControl program and AccessToken class library.
- Part 4 - The Windows 2000-style Access Control editor
- Features of the ACL editor (ACLUI).
- Getting Started.
- Implementing the
- Optional Interfaces.
- Presenting the interface.
- Filepermsbox - A program to display the security descriptor on an NTFS file or folder.
One of the original design goals of Windows NT was to provide a layer that can implement security for the operating system. The way Windows NT implemented security for its objects was through the Access control model. Even role-based security and the .NET classes could not replace this ACL-based security model. ACLs are far too embedded in the NTFS architecture objects, and the registry was to be rendered obsolete (so much so, that .NET v2.0 had to relent and end up supporting the ACL model too).
To start off, I will describe the different types of structures you may meet when programming for access control. This article is intended for all programmers (this part contains no code, just structures and programming concepts).
1. The Security Identifier (SID)
Before delving into the concepts of authorization, I should take a discussion about the Security Identifier (SID). We humans like to refer to a user by their user name (like "Administrator"). A computer must refer to the user in binary. It recognises a user by means of a hash (which is called a SID). When a user is created, the computer generates a SID for that user and from then on, it will refer to that user by its
SID (not its username). To see a list of your own SIDs, open up regedit and expand the HKEY_USERS tree (you will see a list of the SIDs for the currently logged on users). You can convert the raw
SID struct into a textual form by using
ConvertSidToStringSid(). A textual SID (usually starts with S-1-5-21-...) consists of at least 3 dash-separated values (which stand for revision, authority, sub authority, ID and primary groups).
A SID can also represent a user group, a computer, a domain or even a forest. Windows maintains a list of hardcoded SIDs called the Well-Known SIDs (they represent accounts like the LocalSystem, or the NetworkService account). You can view a list of these SIDs in the
To convert a SID to a username, you would need to call
LookupAccountName() to convert a user name to a SID. However, most of the security functions accept either a SID or a username (they actually accept a
TRUSTEE structure, which is a kind of union of the username and SID).
2. The Security Descriptor (SD)
Windows NT secures its objects by means of a structure called the security descriptor (
SECURITY_DESCRIPTOR). The security descriptor is an integral part of the structure from which Windows objects are built. This means every object (be it file objects, registry keys, network shares, mutexes, semaphores, processes, threads, tokens, hardware, services, drivers...) recognized by Windows NT can be secured. The security descriptor structure exists in both kernel mode and user mode (and is identical in both modes). Although this allows for code reuse for both kernel mode and user mode security, it also means the
SECURITY_DESCRIPTOR inherits some nasty quirks from kernel mode.
If you open up Winnt.h and scroll down to the
SECURITY_DESCRIPTOR struct, you'll see the structure of the security descriptor (Fig. 2). This
SECURITY_DESCRIPTOR may actually be one of two structs, one is an absolute security descriptor (
SECURITY_DESCRIPTOR), and the other is a self-relative security descriptor (Fig. 3
typedef struct _SECURITY_DESCRIPTOR
} SECURITY_DESCRIPTOR, *PISECURITY_DESCRIPTOR;
Figure 2: The Absolute Security Descriptor.
Notice that a security descriptor consists of five members (excluding the two version control members):
- Discretionary Access Control List (
Dacl): This is where the permissions of the object are kept (who's allowed access to the object, who's denied).
- System Access Control List (
Sacl): Specifies the type of auditing to be performed on the object. If an auditing event occurs, it will be stored in the Auditing Event Log.
Owner: Specifies the owner of the object (as a SID). The owner of the object can always alter the security descriptor, regardless if someone else has locked out access.
Group: Specifies the primary group of the object (as a SID). Windows mostly ignores this parameter (it was for POSIX compatibility, but its presence is rather vestigial now).
Control: A bunch of flags that make up a 16-bit integer. It can be zero or more of the following flags:
Dacl member is valid.
Sacl member is valid.
SE_DACL_AUTO_INHERITED: The DACL auto-inherits and gets entries from its parent included in itself.
SE_SACL_AUTO_INHERITED: same as
SE_DACL_AUTO_INHERITED, but it applies to the SACL.
SE_DACL_PROTECTED: If the parent's ACLs conflict with any ACL defined here, override the parent's ACL. Useful for overriding inheritance.
SE_SACL_PROTECTED: Same as
SE_DACL_PROTECTED, but for SACLs.
Dacl member equals the default DACL for this object type.
Sacl member equals the default SACL for this object type.
Group member equals the default Group for this object type.
Owner is defaulted.
SE_SELF_RELATIVE: Indicates this security descriptor is self-relative.
The last 4 entries of this structure are all pointers, and they point to the buffers where the ACLs etc. can be found. These pointers can point to any valid location in memory (not necessarily in a contiguous block). Because the security descriptors aren't contiguous, it is going to be rather cumbersome to write the security descriptors to disk, or across processes. Microsoft solved this problem by introducing a new structure, called the self-relative security descriptor (Fig. 3
typedef struct _SECURITY_DESCRIPTOR_RELATIVE
} SECURITY_DESCRIPTOR_RELATIVE, *PISECURITY_DESCRIPTOR_RELATIVE;
Figure 3: The structure of the relative security descriptor
The self-relative security descriptor is much more complicated than the absolute security descriptor (so complex, that you cannot represent it in C++). Although the first three fields are the same as the absolute security descriptor, the security descriptors become very different after that. Following the
Control member are four
DWORDs (which represent offsets to the data). The data for the security descriptor all follow these four
DWORDs. I've inserted padding bytes into the structure to illustrate that the data can appear anywhere in the buffer (simply change the
Offset members to move the buffer). The four members do not need to appear in any particular order either. By choosing special offsets, you can make the
Owner member appear after the group. At the expense of being horrendously complicated, the self-relative security descriptor occupies one contiguous block, making it suitable for transporting between application boundaries and storage media.
How can you tell the difference between an absolute and self-relative security descriptor? The difference is that with an absolute security descriptor, after the
Control member are four pointers to the Group / Owner / SACL / DACL (in that order), and these four pointers point to separate locations in memory where the data can be found. With a self-relative security descriptor, after the Control member are four
DWORDs which represent offsets to the Group / Owner / SACL / DACL. For example, if the group member has the value 0xf, then it's telling Windows, "You can find the group
SID 0xf bytes after me". 64-bit Windows makes this even more confusing when these two structures have differing sizes!
To make matters worse, Microsoft doesn't distinguish between the absolute or self-relative security descriptor in their docs. Microsoft has reserved the right to make internal changes to the security descriptor, meaning you cannot rely on this structure being the same in future. Instead, if you want to manipulate a security descriptor, you should do so using the authorization APIs. Using the APIs encapsulate the complexity of these structures from you. So to distinguish between an absolute security descriptor and a self-relative one, call
GetSecurityDescriptorControl(), and test for the
It's important that you know which API expects an absolute security descriptor, and which ones expect a self-relative one. In Part 2 [^] of this series, you will get around to actually building a security descriptor.
3. The Access Control List (ACL)
Whenever you perform an action (e.g. a read) on an object in Windows NT, the action is encoded into a 32 bit integer (called the
ACCESS_MASK is specific to the object you are trying to create (if you read a file, the
ACCESS_MASK would be
FILE_GENERIC_READ). When you open the object with the requested
ACCESS_MASK, Windows will get your username (inside your thread token) and then start reading the discretionary access control list (obtained from the security descriptor).
The DACL can be thought of as a table of user
ACCESS_MASKs, and access types. Don't try to code it as an array of structs though. Use the low-level ACL functions
GetAclInformation() & friends if you want to parse an ACL. In NT4, Microsoft provides a view of the ACL that looks exactly like a table of
ACCESS_MASKs and types (the
typedef struct _EXPLICIT_ACCESS
} EXPLICIT_ACCESS, *PEXPLICIT_ACCESS;
Figure 4: An outline of the ACL and the ACE.
If the DACL is a table, then each row in the table is called an Access Control Entry. When an action is performed, Windows will enumerate this list of ACEs to find an entry that refers to you (you being the thread token). Windows enumerates the ACEs in the order they appear in the ACL. At first sight this goes against your intuition, the Help documentation, and what the MCP books say ("I thought Windows walks the Deny ACEs first, then walks the Allow ACEs. Now you're telling me this is wrong?"). Actually, we are both right. When Windows sets the DACL, it sorts the access control entries [^] so that deny ACEs do precede allow ACEs, and the access control model follows what you were taught.
If you make a call to the low level functions, you can circumvent the sorting, and make the ACEs appear in any order you like. The Cygwin tools utilise this technique to create DACLs unordered. However, these DACLs will not obey the access control rules, and you can make files with broken ACLs.
If you (your token) isn't found in the ACL, then the open object function fails (Access denied). If you are found, Windows will look in the ACE to see what you are allowed to do. If the ACE allows you to open the object, you are granted access. If anything fails here, you are denied access (this is an example of a security best practice: "if anything goes wrong, make sure you fail securely").
Now that you have been granted or denied access, Windows will now make a check on the other ACL, the System Access Control List. The difference between an SACL and a DACL is that DACL contains allow / deny entries, but an SACL contains audit entries. The SACL tells Windows which actions to log in the Security Event Log (audit successes / failures). Apart from that, you can treat the SACL / DACL as the same. If Windows finds an SACL which tells it to audit the access, then the access attempt is written to the Event log.
If you want to see if an ACL allows you access to the object, use the
AccessCheck() API on the object.
4. Creating a good discretionary access control list
In almost every case, Windows has already decided a good discretionary access control list for you. When you encounter an API that asks for a security descriptor (or a
SECURITY_ATTRIBUTES structure), simply pass in
NULL for this parameter. Passing in
NULL for either the
SECURITY_DESCRIPTOR will tell the system to apply the default security descriptor. And that is probably what you were after.
If you need more advanced security, make sure you create a security descriptor that has a filled DACL. If you've initialized a security descriptor, but have forgotten to build up a DACL (and attach it to the security descriptor), you will get a
NULL DACL. Windows sees this
NULL DACL as an object that has the following ACE:
"Everyone: Full control"
Therefore, Windows will allow access to the object regardless of the action. This is one case where Microsoft broke its own best practices. When it encounters something unexpected, Windows should fail securely. In this case it doesn't. So with a
NULL DACL, everyone (including malware) will be able to do anything to the object (including setting a nasty rootkit-style DACL). For this reason, don't create security descriptors with
NULL DACL isn't the same as setting a
NULL security descriptor. When passing a
NULL security descriptor, Windows will replace it with a default security descriptor, and this security descriptor is secure, and allows enough access to the object. Setting a
NULL DACL means passing a valid security descriptor, whose
Dacl member happens to be
In a similar way, you probably don't want to set a DACL that doesn't contain any Access Control entries. In this DACL, when Windows attempts to enumerate the Access Control List, it will fail on the first attempt, therefore, it will deny access regardless of the action. The result is a completely inaccessible object (not much better than a non-existent object). You must have a filled DACL if you want to access the object.
So how do we build a Discretionary access control list?
Think about who you want to allow access to and who you don't want to allow access. Is your DACL black list based (full of deny ACEs), or white list based (full of allow ACEs). If you are creating an ACL, you should prefer a white list approach to the security descriptor. How long is the object going to last? Is it a long running object (like the app mutex for a long running process), a short running object (like a synchronization event), or is it a permanent object (like a file)?
To determine a good security descriptor decide what you are going to do to the object. If you are securing a kernel object, you probably only need to synchronize, read and read the security on it. If you are securing a file, you'll probably need all accesses available (one day).
Generally, for permanent objects you need at least two accounts to have access to the object. The first user is the LocalSystem account (restricting access to this account can lead to serious problems if it is a permanent object). The other is the object creator (or alternatively, the current owner) of the object. You should also consider giving administrators full control to the object. Another technique you can consider is only allowing the users read and execute access. When they want to delete the file, they will have to add the
DELETE right themselves, then delete it.
For short running objects, you should apply the principal of least privilege to the object. For example, if all you are going to do with an object is read from it and synchronize it, then create a DACL that only allows read and synchronize access (you can even restrict the LocalSystem's account this way if it is a short lived object).
If your object supports inheritance, then you don't need a special DACL on the object (unless your file is special in terms of security), you can just apply the DACL for the parent (do this by setting the auto inherit flag in the
Control member of the security descriptor). The default security descriptor will apply the inheritance flag for you.
And finally, if in doubt, ask the admins!
5. Windows 2000 Inheritance Model
Starting with Windows 2000, ACLs can be set to inherit from their parent. What this means is that the ACL of the parent will be applied to the child (e.g. the permissions for "\Program Files\Common Files\Microsoft Shared" will be the same as "\Program Files\Common Files"). A special flag in the ACE will state that it is inherited.
As stated in the previous section, Windows walks the list of ACEs until it reaches the end or finds an ACE that matches you. If inheritance is enabled, when Windows reaches the end of the list, it will start walking the ACL of the parent folder to find a matching ACE. Therefore, the object will have the parent's ACL applied to itself, automatically. This only occurs if the ACL is set to inherit from the parent object.
If the folder also has inheritance, Windows will walk up that folder too. This can continue all the way until Windows hits a folder that has inheritance disabled, or it hits the root of the drive. The result is that the resultant ACL is a merged view of the current object and its parent. The ACEs that come from the parent are called inherited ACEs, and the ACEs that come from the file itself are called the protected ACEs.
To support ACL inheritance, you must design your classes to have parent-child relationships (like a file/folder, or a registry key/value). The parent will be referred to as a container (e.g. folder), and the child will be referred to as an object (like a file).
For really advanced ACL control, Windows 2000 supports applying ACEs only to folders and not files (and vice versa). The ACE flag that controls inheritance also states which type of inheritance to apply. There are four flags:
OI): indicates the ACE gets inherited to child objects (e.g. files).
CI): indicates the ACE gets inherited to child containers (e.g. subfolders).
IO): indicates the ACE applies not to this object, but to child objects (e.g. child files/subfolders only).
NP): do not apply this ACE to grandchildren, just the direct children (e.g. apply files but not files in subfolders).
These flags can be (and usually are) combined. To make the ACE apply to every child object within yourself (including inside subfolders), specify
(OBJECT_INHERIT_ACE | CONTAINER_INHERIT_ACE).
For a more complete description of ACE inheritance, check out Keith Brown's book.
6. The Access Token
The final structure I will describe today is the Access token. I don't want to delve too much into this structure otherwise I may stray off topic (it's relevant not only to access control, but to privileges, policy, group membership as well as IPC across logon sessions). The access token forms an integral part of both the thread and process objects. The access token identifies who you are in the context of security. Windows NT maintains user information per process, as this allows processes and threads to run as a different user (if you wanted to know how Task Manager knows which user a process runs under, it's in the access token). The access token is the feature that allows services, runas, and fast user switching to exist.
The access token can either be a process token, a primary thread token, or a thread impersonation token. Unless your thread is impersonating, your thread doesn't have a token (you'll be using the process token instead). Once you've made your thread impersonating, you'll have an impersonation token associated with your thread. You can convert your impersonation token into a primary token (suitable for
CreateProcessAsUser()) by calling
When you log in to Windows, your processes will have their tokens set to your username when run. If you open your own token and look inside it, you can find out the name of the user you are running as (all without needing to invoke
Figure 5: An illustration of the access token.
There's a lot of information you can gleam from a token via
GetTokenInformation(). For example:
TokenUser: Which user the process runs as.
TokenGroupsandPrivileges: Which groups the user belongs to (as well as
TokenGroups: The complete list of groups to which the user belongs (gives more information than "net.exe user <user>", WMI, User Management console, and "control userpasswords2").
TokenPrivileges: The list of privileges.
TokenDefaultGroup: The definition of a default security descriptor.
TokenType: Whether this token impersonates.
TokenSource: The source of the access token.
TokenRestrictedSids: The list of restricted SIDs.
For the purposes of access control, most of the information we need from the access token are in the
TokenGroupsandPrivileges structure. With this value, you rollup the
LookupPrivilegeValue() APIs all in one. The token shows that being a member of the administrators group also makes you a member of the None group, the Authenticated Users group, the Users group, the Power Users group, and the LOCAL group. This is useful to you as you now have a list of user groups to which you belong, and can now search an ACL using this list. To see if an ACL grants you access:
- Open up your thread token.
- Get the list of groups.
- Obtain the
SECURITY_DESCRIPTOR for the object.
- Get the ACL from the security descriptor.
- For each ACE in the ACL, lookup the SID associated with that ACE.
- Lookup this SID in the list of groups you created in step 2.
- If found, see if it is a deny or allow ACE.
- If it is an allow ACE, compare the
ACCESS_MASK with your desired
- If all accesses are allowed, you are allowed access.
- If an error occurs, you are denied access.
Add in error/parameter checking to the above list (and auditing), and you have just created yourself a pseudo
You've probably already encountered the default security descriptor. Whenever you encountered an API that requested a
SECURITY_ATTRIBUTES parameter, you most likely passed in
NULL for that parameter (which means "default security descriptor"). By calling
GetTokenInformation(TokenDefault*), you can find out what that default security descriptor is.
The privileges are a list of policies that must be enabled before you are allowed to perform certain system-critical functions (like shutdown the system, or install drivers). These privileges are configurable via group policy (user rights assignment), and are listed in your thread token. The privileges are disabled by default (exception:
SeChangeNotifyPrivilege), so you must enable the privilege before you can use it. The Platform SDK provides a sample function
SetPrivilege() that can enable and disable a privilege whenever you need it. I strongly suggest you add this function to your security utility library, because you are going to reuse that function again and again, especially with access control. Enabling a privilege then becomes a matter of adding two lines to your code:
Figure 16: Enabling and disabling a privilege using the Platform SDK sample function.
I don't want to go into sandboxing or impersonation (since they are rather off topic for access control). If you want to know more about impersonation and privileges, look at this WindowsSecurity article, or Paul Cooke's book.
7. A note on the Security Descriptor Definition Language
The Security Descriptor Definition Language is an attempt to represent a security descriptor in text form that both administrators and programs can understand. The full reference (and in my humble opinion, the only decent reference) to the SDDL format is located in the help documentation.
Briefly, the SDDL string contains the following parts: a group, an owner, the DACL and SACL. These sections are delimited by a one-letter label followed by a colon (
O: delimits the owner,
G: delimits the group,
D: delimits the DACL,
S: delimits the SACL). Following the group and delimiters are SIDs that denote the owner and group. Following the
S: delimiters are a list of bracket separated entries (each bracket represents an ACE in the list).
The ACE bracket consists of six semicolon delimited terms that represent ACE type, inheritance,
ACCESS_MASK, GUID, inherited GUID, and user SID respectively. The ACE brackets are stacked up in the list to form the overall ACL. Prefixing the list of ACE brackets can be some other flags; these represent the control flags for the security descriptor. The following is an example SDDL we will dissect (I've separated the different sections for clarity):
First, tokenize this string using the delimiters:
(A;;RP WP CC DC LC SW RC WD WO GA;;;S-1-0-0) (A;;GA;;;SY)
Figure 7a: The SDDL string tokenized into separate strings.
Next, expand the SID strings and ACE strings:
|Account Operators||Domain Administrators|| |
(A;;ADS_RIGHT_DS_READ_PROP | ADS_RIGHT_DS_WRITE_PROP | ADS_RIGHT_DS_CREATE_CHILD | ADS_RIGHT_DS_DELETE_CHILD | ADS_RIGHT_DS_LIST | ADS_RIGHT_DS_SELF | READ_CONTROL | WRITE_DAC | WRITE_OWNER | GENERIC_ALL;;; null SID
Figure 7b: The SDDL string with the SID strings and ACE strings expanded
Finally, expand the constant strings:
|Account Operators||Domain Administrators|| ||Allow (null SID): 0x01e000bb|
Allow LocalSystem: 0x100000
Figure 7c: The security descriptor that the SDDL string specifies.
This is the meaning of the SDDL string specified. For a whole bunch of example SDDL strings, take a look at the %windir%\security\templates\*.inf files. This is what Windows Setup used to apply the default security descriptors for your Windows installation. See if you can decrypt the security descriptors for those strings. (To find out the answers, you can call the
ConvertStringSecurityDescriptorToSecurityDescriptor() function on the security descriptor strings.)
Sorry about the poor explanation about SDDL strings. Like I said, the best reference for SDDL is in the SDK documentation, and I still stand by that statement.
8. Coming Up
In this part, you learnt how Windows NT secured its objects using security descriptors. You discovered that Windows recognizes users, groups and computers as SIDs. You learnt that security descriptors originally came from kernel mode, therefore they can be complex beasts. You were shown the parts of a security descriptor, the five components which make it up, and how it is stored in memory. You were then shown the two types of access control list. You discovered the structure of the ACL, how Windows reads an ACL, and how inheritance is implemented within the Access control model. The last structure you learnt about was the access token. You were taught what information can be read from a token, and finished off with enabling a permission.
In Part 2, you will start writing some example code for reading and writing security descriptors. You will also obtain information from the primary token to create a WhoAmI clone. Whilst you are waiting for the next article to come up, I want you to choose which technique you are going to program with. I am going to present four ways of programming with security:
- The low level way. If you need to program for NT3.5, and don't have ATL, you'll have no choice but to choose this method. This method makes direct calls to the low level ACL functions, and they are horrible! Not only is it nontrivial to program, this method is also excessively complex and error prone (no wonder Windows NT had so many security bugs [^]!). Unless you need to support backward compatibility (since when did you care about backward compatibility?), I strongly recommend you steer clear of this method if you can help it. If you want a preview of this method, check out the SDK docs on
- The Windows 2000 way. Realising how difficult method 1 was, Microsoft invented an alternative API for creating security descriptors, the Security Descriptor Definition Language (SDDL). Initially, SDDL may not be much better than low level authorisation (just as complex, and not as compatible). However, being in text mode makes SDDL infinitely more readable, for both programmers and administrators. And if you look closely at a number of SDDLs, along with the corresponding ACLs, you'll soon get the hang of it. Windows 2000 also introduces API helpers to automate repetitive tasks (like printing a SID in text form). If you want a preview, check out the SDK docs on
- The ATL way. As part of the Trustworthy Computing Initiative, Microsoft made a number of updates to ATL, culminating in the ATL security classes. If you have Visual C++ .NET, and don't mind programming with ATL C++, you'll want to choose this method. To see a preview, check out the
CSecurityDesc() [^] class from the Visual C++ help.
- The .NET way. Starting with v2.0 of the .NET Framework, you can also choose to program security descriptors in a fully object oriented managed environment. Note, that I will not cover this in part 2 of the series. Instead programming security in .NET will have its very own part in this series (Part 3). If you have Visual Studio .NET 2005, you should strongly consider choosing this method. You can see a preview in the
The history and bibliography are now maintained in Part 4 [^].
Next Part... [^]