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Active Directory Auditing for Regulatory Compliance Best Practices. In the realm of IT security and compliance, Active Directory (AD) stands as a pivotal component within organizations, centralizing user management and system configurations. Therefore, Active Directory configuration is a mandatory part of the cybersecurity audit. Maintaining the integrity, security, and compliance of AD is critical and to meet regulatory standards. This article delves into Active Directory Auditing for Regulatory Compliance Best Practices. From domain controller security to authentication management and object lifecycle, a multifaceted approach is outlined to aid in safeguarding AD environments and making sure strict rules for compliance are followed.

Best Practice for Active Directory Auditing and Regulatory Compliance

What Should We Start With?

Domain Controller Security

The best practices that help to successfully pass the audit are:

  • Keep domain controllers patched in time. Servers without the last security updates are considered vulnerable, and you need to ensure that all domain controllers are patched regularly. For old operating systems without the support, consider purchasing Extended Security Updates.
  • Use reliable and up-to-date antivirus software.
  • Use read-only domain controllers (RODC) where needed. The typical scenario for the usage of RODC is a remote office where physical security is a bottleneck. RODC hots rad-only partitions of domain services, and the lost of this server causes less harm than the loss of the writeable domain controller.
  • Don’t install unnecessary software (or server roles) on a domain controller. The more components, the wider the attack surface for the hackers.

Implementation of Monitoring

Monitoring is implemented via third-party monitoring systems and built-in audit policies. Policies should identify what should be recorded and how, should be based on the regulations your company should comply to and the internal cybersecurity procedures. For example, HIPAA requires monitoring of logon/logoff actions, therefore enabling of the built-in Windows Audit policies would be a good start. Additionally, deployment of the third-party solutions helps to perform the comprehensive auditing, provide reporting and visualizations.

Change Management

The industry standard is to apply ITIL v4 practices of the change management, which requires all changes to be discussed by the change advisory board and to be well-documented. For Active Directory record all change requests that alter the configuration of domain services. For example, the last modification date of the Default Domain Policy or protected group, and the shown date must be the same as it is specified in the last registered change request.

Domain Trust Management

When implementing the domain trust, you delegate the authentication of users to another domain. The necessity of adding the trust must be assessed in details, since existence of trusts reduces the security – you can never be sure that the IT personnel of the partner organization protects their AD DS infrastructure properly. If you have trusts, it is a good idea to perform periodic review, to check whether trust is still required or not.

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Authentication Management - Ensure Password Security

One of the main purposes of Active Directory is to work as an identity provider. Therefore, proper authentication management should be implemented to meet the compliance requirement.

Application of Password Policies and Account Lockout Policies

Active Directory has a set of built-in password policies applied to the organization. Examples of policies are configured using the Default Domain Policy and include:

  • Password length and complexity requirements.
  • Password history (preventing users from reusing passwords they had before).
  • Password expiration settings (maximum and minimum age).

Additionally, as a response action to multiple authentication failures (which could mean the possible brute force attack), configure AD to lock the user account. Account lockout policies should be used for this purpose, they allow to specify:

  • Number of failed authentication attempts before account is locked.
  • Whether Administrator account can be locked.
  • For how long account should be locket.
  • When the lockout counter should be reset.

Deploy Multi-Ffactor Authentication

Multi-factor authentication (MFA) allows to improve authentication security dramatically (in general, weak password + second factor is considered more secure than the strong password only) and is required by many regulations. It requires additional budget, as you may need to purchase third-party MFA software (or service), additional assets (such as hardware tokens) or replace the existing assets (for example, if you want to implement smartcards as a second factor, you may need to replace the existing keyboards and laptops with the ones that have built-in smartcard readers).

Mitigate Potential Authentication-related Vulnerabilities

It is vital to continuously identify and mitigate the vulnerabilities. The mitigation process should be developed for each issue separately. For example, if local administrator accounts of domain-joined devices use default name and aren’t a subject for password-related policies, it is considered as a potential authentication-related vulnerability. This vulnerability is mitigated by renaming the local administrator account and deployment of Local Administrator Password Solution (LAPS).

Access Control - Manage the Provided Permissions

To ensure security and regulatory compliance, controlling of administrative access provided to IT personnel must be implemented. The following measures are considered a good practice:

  • Identify which roles are privileged and they should be audited. The list of protected groups can be used as a foundation.
  • Ensure the process of role provisioning includes the recording. Usually, it is configured the following way:
    • The provision of role is requested in the IT service management tool (ServiceNow, SolarWinds, ServiceDesk Plus, etc.). The request form requires the justification.
    • The responsible person provides role and records the request number for the auditing purpose.
    • Then, if the auditor checks why this account is a member of the protected group, they can open the request and see all necessary information.
  • Separate access to AdminSDHolder from the built-in groups. AdminSDHolder is a container in Active Directory that contains templates of permissions for the protected accounts and groups. Access to this container is required to modify built-in groups and their memberships, by default, Domain Admins group has this access. It is a good idea to create a separate group with access to AdminSDHolder and add the person responsible for the role provisioning. The idea is that the person who provides Domain Administrator rights doesn’t need to have these rights by themselves, it helps to follow the principle of least privilege.
  • Use just-in-time (JIT) access whenever possible. This approach requires deployment of a special tool (like Privileged Access Management for Active Directory Domain Services or third-party solution) that provides the elevated permissions on a temp basis, which helps to reduce the security risks in case of administrative account being compromised.
  • Enhance the authentication requirements for the high-privilege accounts by applying stricter password policies to the administrative accounts. For example, use Default Domain Policy GPO for regular user accounts and fine-grained password policy for the selected accounts (more details are found here, the article is old, but it still applies for the modern Active Directory deployments).  The separate password policy is used to increase the password complexity, enforce password history and change frequency. Additionally, it is used to configure the account lockout settings. Fine-grained password policy are created via Active Directory Administrative Center or PowerShell.
  • Perform periodic review of the protected groups. Make sure that the temporary access granted to the account does not remain forever. For example, perform review on a quarterly basis by opening the membership tab of the AD group, assessing the memberships and making the screenshots to store them as evidence.
  • Use separate, strictly protected hosts to login to the highly privileged accounts. Ensure the hosts are secure from both cyber security and physical security points of view.

Object Lifecycle Management - Ensure Everything is in Order

Proper Active Directory administration requires well-defined and documented control of the objects lifecycle. It describes, how the object is created, modified, when it should be disabled and deleted.

Object Creation

To be initiated by an official request and registered. The request number should be recorded in the properties of the object, e.g., in the Description attribute or some custom attribute. The request form should contain not only the permissions and the purpose of the object, but also additional fields helpful during the audit – owner of the object, related service, time frame of use, etc.  For example, you need to create a Contact object in Active Directory, which adds an external email address to the corporate address book. Besides the name of contact and the address, the requestor must specify who requested this contact (e.g. HR department) and why (frequently used contact of training center that provides refresher courses for the company).

Object Modification

Must also be recorded to ensure the security compliance. For example – there is a user account that has logon as a service permission. Its owner requested to add logon as batch job permission. In this case you need to save both records: the initial request for user account creation, and new request for modification, to be able to justify the permission provision during audit. 

Object Disabling

The disabling of an object is a special case of object modification. Disabled object (usually user or computer account) cannot be used but it is preserved in the directory. The reasons for disabling could be different:

  • User account of employee who went to a long leave.
  • AD Object with configured attributes and memberships to be used as a template for the new objects.
  • Objects meant to be disabled by design (for example, user objects of Exchange Server shared mailboxes are disabled by default as they are not designed to be used for logon).

Object Deletion

Another important part of the lifecycle. For example, some service was deployed in the company. It has several objects in Active Directory: servers and service accounts. Then service was decommissioned, all servers were removed from AD, but service accounts were left, because the life cycle of service accounts wasn’t defined. As a result, some unsupervised accounts with logon as a service permission are presented in AD, providing an additional target for attack.

Thank you for reading Active Directory Auditing for Regulatory Compliance Best Practices. We shall summarize the article.

Active Directory Auditing for Regulatory Compliance Best Practices Conclusion

To keep Active Directory Domain Services compliant, you need the effective administration that extends beyond mere user management. By adhering to a structured approach including domain controller security, robust change management, careful access control measures, and the well-defined lifecycle management of AD objects, organizations significantly improve their cybersecurity resilience and align with regulatory compliance mandates. Active Directory, as the backbone of user authentication and authorization, demands continual vigilance, proactive security protocols, and a robust framework to navigate the complexities of modern cybersecurity landscapes. By following these practices, organizations fortify their Active Directory infrastructure, mitigate vulnerabilities, and uphold regulatory compliance, thereby ensuring a resilient and secure digital ecosystem.

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Marat M

Marat M

System administrator with 14 years of practical experience. Specializes in Microsoft products such as Exchange Server, Active Directory, Microsoft 365 and Azure.

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