Access Token Manipulation

From enterprise
Jump to: navigation, search
Access Token Manipulation
ID T1134
Tactic Defense Evasion, Privilege Escalation
Platform Windows Server 2003, Windows Server 2008, Windows Server 2012, Windows XP, Windows 7, Windows 8, Windows Server 2003 R2, Windows Server 2008 R2, Windows Server 2012 R2, Windows Vista, Windows 8.1, Windows 10
Permissions Required User, Administrator
Effective Permissions SYSTEM
Contributors Tom Ueltschi @c_APT_ure

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 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. For example, Microsoft promotes the use of access tokens as a security best practice. Administrators should log in as a standard user but run their tools with administrator privileges using the built-in access token manipulation command runas. 1

Adversaries may use access tokens to operate under a different user or system security context to perform actions and evade detection. An adversary can use built-in Windows API functions to copy access tokens from existing processes; this is known as token stealing. 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.2

Adversaries can also create spoofed access tokens if they know the credentials of a user. Any standard user can use the runas command, and the Windows API functions, to do this; it does not require access to an administrator account.

Lastly, an adversary can use a spoofed token to authenticate to a remote system as the account for that token if the account has appropriate permissions on the remote system.

Metasploit’s Meterpreter payload allows arbitrary token stealing and uses token stealing to escalate privileges. 3 The Cobalt Strike beacon payload allows arbitrary token stealing and can also create tokens. 4


  • APT28 has used CVE-2015-1701 to access the SYSTEM token and copy it into the current process as part of privilege escalation.5
  • Lazarus Group keylogger KiloAlfa obtains user tokens from interactive sessions to execute itself with API call CreateProcessAsUserA under that user's context.6
  • Cobalt Strike can steal access tokens from exiting processes and make tokens from known credentials.7
  • 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
  • SslMM contains a feature to manipulate process privileges and tokens.9


Access tokens are an integral part of the security system within Windows and cannot be turned off. However, an attacker 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 to do their job.

Any user can also spoof access tokens if they have legitimate credentials. Follow mitigation guidelines for preventing adversary use of Valid Accounts.

Also limit opportunities for adversaries to increase privileges by limiting Privilege Escalation opportunities.


If an adversary is using a standard command-line shell, analysts can detect 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.10

If an adversary is using a payload that calls the Windows token APIs directly, analysts can detect 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., LogonUser11, DuplicateTokenEx12, and ImpersonateLoggedOnUser13). Please see the referenced Windows API pages for more information.