Access Token Manipulation

Adversaries may modify access tokens to operate under a different user or system security context to perform actions and bypass access controls. Windows uses access tokens to determine the ownership of a running process. A user can manipulate access tokens to make a running process appear as though it is the child of a different process or belongs to someone other than the user that started the process. When this occurs, the process also takes on the security context associated with the new token.

An adversary can use built-in Windows API functions to copy access tokens from existing processes; this is known as token stealing. These token can then be applied to an existing process (i.e. Token Impersonation/Theft) or used to spawn a new process (i.e. Create Process with Token). An adversary must already be in a privileged user context (i.e. administrator) to steal a token. However, adversaries commonly use token stealing to elevate their security context from the administrator level to the SYSTEM level. An adversary can then use a token to authenticate to a remote system as the account for that token if the account has appropriate permissions on the remote system.[1]

Any standard user can use the runas command, and the Windows API functions, to create impersonation tokens; it does not require access to an administrator account. There are also other mechanisms, such as Active Directory fields, that can be used to modify access tokens.

ID: T1134
Platforms: Windows
Permissions Required: Administrator, User
Effective Permissions: SYSTEM
Defense Bypassed: Heuristic Detection, Host Forensic Analysis, System Access Controls, Windows User Account Control
Contributors: Jared Atkinson, @jaredcatkinson; Robby Winchester, @robwinchester3; Tom Ueltschi @c_APT_ure; Travis Smith, Tripwire
Version: 2.0
Created: 14 December 2017
Last Modified: 30 March 2023

Procedure Examples

ID Name Description
S0622 AppleSeed

AppleSeed can gain system level privilege by passing SeDebugPrivilege to the AdjustTokenPrivilege API.[2]

S1068 BlackCat

BlackCat has the ability modify access tokens.[3][4]

G0108 Blue Mockingbird

Blue Mockingbird has used JuicyPotato to abuse the SeImpersonate token privilege to escalate from web application pool accounts to NT Authority\SYSTEM.[5]

C0017 C0017

During C0017, APT41 used a ConfuserEx obfuscated BADPOTATO exploit to abuse named-pipe impersonation for local NT AUTHORITY\SYSTEM privilege escalation.[6]

S0625 Cuba

Cuba has used SeDebugPrivilege and AdjustTokenPrivileges to elevate privileges.[7]

S0038 Duqu

Duqu examines running system processes for tokens that have specific system privileges. If it finds one, it will copy the token and store it for later use. Eventually it will start new processes with the stored token attached. It can also steal tokens to acquire administrative privileges.[8]

S0363 Empire

Empire can use PowerSploit's Invoke-TokenManipulation to manipulate access tokens.[9]

G0037 FIN6

FIN6 has used has used Metasploit’s named-pipe impersonation technique to escalate privileges.[10]

S0666 Gelsemium

Gelsemium can use token manipulation to bypass UAC on Windows7 systems.[11]

S0697 HermeticWiper

HermeticWiper can use AdjustTokenPrivileges to grant itself privileges for debugging with SeDebugPrivilege, creating backups with SeBackupPrivilege, loading drivers with SeLoadDriverPrivilege, and shutting down a local system with SeShutdownPrivilege.[12][13]

S0203 Hydraq

Hydraq creates a backdoor through which remote attackers can adjust token privileges.[14]

S0607 KillDisk

KillDisk has attempted to get the access token of a process by calling OpenProcessToken. If KillDisk gets the access token, then it attempt to modify the token privileges with AdjustTokenPrivileges.[15]

S1060 Mafalda

Mafalda can use AdjustTokenPrivileges() to elevate privileges.[16]

S0576 MegaCortex

MegaCortex can enable SeDebugPrivilege and adjust token privileges.[17]

S0378 PoshC2

PoshC2 can use Invoke-TokenManipulation for manipulating tokens.[18]

S0194 PowerSploit

PowerSploit's Invoke-TokenManipulation Exfiltration module can be used to manipulate tokens.[19][20]

S0446 Ryuk

Ryuk has attempted to adjust its token privileges to have the SeDebugPrivilege.[21]

S0633 Sliver

Sliver has the ability to manipulate user tokens on targeted Windows systems.[22][23]

S0058 SslMM

SslMM contains a feature to manipulate process privileges and tokens.[24]


SUNSPOT modified its security token to grants itself debugging privileges by adding SeDebugPrivilege.[25]


ID Mitigation Description
M1026 Privileged Account Management

Limit permissions so that users and user groups cannot create tokens. This setting should be defined for the local system account only. GPO: Computer Configuration > [Policies] > Windows Settings > Security Settings > Local Policies > User Rights Assignment: Create a token object. [26] Also define who can create a process level token to only the local and network service through GPO: Computer Configuration > [Policies] > Windows Settings > Security Settings > Local Policies > User Rights Assignment: Replace a process level token.[27]

Administrators should log in as a standard user but run their tools with administrator privileges using the built-in access token manipulation command runas.[28]

M1018 User Account Management

An adversary must already have administrator level access on the local system to make full use of this technique; be sure to restrict users and accounts to the least privileges they require.


ID Data Source Data Component Detects
DS0026 Active Directory Active Directory Object Modification

Monitor for changes made to AD settings that may modify access tokens to operate under a different user or system security context to perform actions and bypass access controls.

DS0017 Command Command Execution

Monitor executed commands and arguments for token manipulation by auditing command-line activity. Specifically, analysts should look for use of the runas command. Detailed command-line logging is not enabled by default in Windows.[29]

DS0009 Process OS API Execution

Monitor for API calls, loaded by a payload, for token manipulation only through careful analysis of user network activity, examination of running processes, and correlation with other endpoint and network behavior. There are many Windows API calls a payload can take advantage of to manipulate access tokens (e.g., LogonUser [30], DuplicateTokenEx[31], and ImpersonateLoggedOnUser[32]). Please see the referenced Windows API pages for more information.

Process Creation

Monitor for executed processes that may modify access tokens to operate under a different user or system security context to perform actions and bypass access controls.

Process Metadata

Query systems for process and thread token information and look for inconsistencies such as user owns processes impersonating the local SYSTEM account.[33] Look for inconsistencies between the various fields that store PPID information, such as the EventHeader ProcessId from data collected via Event Tracing for Windows (ETW), Creator Process ID/Name from Windows event logs, and the ProcessID and ParentProcessID (which are also produced from ETW and other utilities such as Task Manager and Process Explorer). The ETW provided EventHeader ProcessId identifies the actual parent process.

DS0002 User Account User Account Metadata

Monitor for contextual data about an account, which may include a username, user ID, environmental data, etc. that may modify access tokens to operate under a different user or system security context to perform actions and bypass access controls.


  1. netbiosX. (2017, April 3). Token Manipulation. Retrieved April 21, 2017.
  2. Jazi, H. (2021, June 1). Kimsuky APT continues to target South Korean government using AppleSeed backdoor. Retrieved June 10, 2021.
  3. Microsoft Defender Threat Intelligence. (2022, June 13). The many lives of BlackCat ransomware. Retrieved December 20, 2022.
  4. Brandt, Andrew. (2022, July 14). BlackCat ransomware attacks not merely a byproduct of bad luck. Retrieved December 20, 2022.
  5. Lambert, T. (2020, May 7). Introducing Blue Mockingbird. Retrieved May 26, 2020.
  6. Rufus Brown, Van Ta, Douglas Bienstock, Geoff Ackerman, John Wolfram. (2022, March 8). Does This Look Infected? A Summary of APT41 Targeting U.S. State Governments. Retrieved July 8, 2022.
  7. Roccio, T., et al. (2021, April). Technical Analysis of Cuba Ransomware. Retrieved June 18, 2021.
  8. Kaspersky Lab. (2015, June 11). The Duqu 2.0. Retrieved April 21, 2017.
  9. Schroeder, W., Warner, J., Nelson, M. (n.d.). Github PowerShellEmpire. Retrieved April 28, 2016.
  10. McKeague, B. et al. (2019, April 5). Pick-Six: Intercepting a FIN6 Intrusion, an Actor Recently Tied to Ryuk and LockerGoga Ransomware. Retrieved April 17, 2019.
  11. Dupuy, T. and Faou, M. (2021, June). Gelsemium. Retrieved November 30, 2021.
  12. Dani, M. (2022, March 1). Ukrainian Targets Hit by HermeticWiper, New Datawiper Malware. Retrieved March 25, 2022.
  13. Thomas, W. et al. (2022, February 25). CrowdStrike Falcon Protects from New Wiper Malware Used in Ukraine Cyberattacks. Retrieved March 25, 2022.
  14. Lelli, A. (2010, January 11). Trojan.Hydraq. Retrieved February 20, 2018.
  15. Gilbert Sison, Rheniel Ramos, Jay Yaneza, Alfredo Oliveira. (2018, January 15). KillDisk Variant Hits Latin American Financial Groups. Retrieved January 12, 2021.
  16. SentinelLabs. (2022, September 22). Metador Technical Appendix. Retrieved April 4, 2023.
  17. Del Fierro, C. Kessem, L.. (2020, January 8). From Mega to Giga: Cross-Version Comparison of Top MegaCortex Modifications. Retrieved February 15, 2021.