Basics of Active Directory for a Security Researcher

Riya Jain
3 min readOct 15, 2023

Active Directory (AD) is a critical component in most modern IT infrastructures, serving as the central hub for managing users, computers, and resources within a network. For security researchers, understanding the fundamentals of Active Directory is crucial, as it forms a significant attack surface and plays a pivotal role in an organization’s security posture. In this article, we’ll delve into the basics of Active Directory from a security researcher’s perspective.

1. What is Active Directory?

Active Directory is a Microsoft technology that provides a centralized and standardized way of managing and organizing network resources. It is essentially a directory service that stores information about network objects such as users, groups, computers, and more.

2. Key Components of Active Directory

2.1. Domains

Domains are the fundamental units in Active Directory, representing a logical grouping of objects, policies, and permissions. Domains provide a boundary for security and administrative purposes.

2.2. Domain Controllers:
Domain controllers (DCs) are servers that authenticate users, enforce security policies, and manage access to network resources within a domain. They store the Active Directory database and replicate changes to other domain controllers.

2.3. Organizational Units (OUs):
OUs are containers within domains that allow for further organization and delegation of administrative tasks. They help structure the Active Directory hierarchy, enabling efficient management of users, groups, and other objects.

2.4. Groups:
Groups are collections of users, computers, or other groups. They simplify the management of permissions and access rights by allowing administrators to assign permissions to a group instead of individual users.

3. Authentication and Authorization in Active Directory

3.1. Authentication:
Authentication is the process of verifying the identity of a user or computer attempting to access the network. Active Directory employs various authentication protocols, such as Kerberos and NTLM, to ensure secure authentication.

3.2. Authorization:
Authorization determines what resources a user or system can access after successful authentication. Active Directory employs access control lists (ACLs) and group policies to control access to files, folders, and other network resources.

4. Security Risks and Best Practices

4.1. Common Security Risks:
- Credential Attacks: Brute force attacks, credential spraying, and password guessing.
- Privilege Escalation: Exploiting vulnerabilities to elevate privileges within Active Directory.
- Lateral Movement: Moving laterally within the network to escalate privileges and access sensitive data.

4.2. Best Practices:
- Regularly update and patch systems to mitigate known vulnerabilities.
- Implement strong password policies and multi-factor authentication (MFA) to enhance authentication security.
- Monitor and audit Active Directory logs to detect and respond to suspicious activities promptly.
- Conduct regular security assessments, penetration testing, and vulnerability scanning to identify and address security weaknesses.

5. Conclusion

Active Directory is a fundamental component in modern enterprise environments, centralizing management and access to network resources. For security researchers, comprehending its structure, components, and security implications is essential for identifying and mitigating potential risks. By adopting best practices and staying informed about evolving threats, security researchers can effectively contribute to safeguarding organizations’ critical assets and data.

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Riya Jain

Security Researcher | Penetration Tester | Red Team | Blue Team | eJPT|CAP | CND | Purple Team