Shadow Credentials


The Kerberos authentication protocol works with tickets in order to grant access. An ST (Service Ticket) can be obtained by presenting a TGT (Ticket Granting Ticket). That prior TGT can only be obtained by validating a first step named "pre-authentication" (except if that requirement is explicitly removed for some accounts, making them vulnerable to ASREProast). The pre-authentication can be validated symmetrically (with a DES, RC4, AES128 or AES256 key) or asymmetrically (with certificates). The asymmetrical way of pre-authenticating is called PKINIT.

The client has a public-private key pair, and encrypts the pre-authentication data with their private key, and the KDC decrypts it with the client’s public key. The KDC also has a public-private key pair, allowing for the exchange of a session key. (

Active Directory user and computer objects have an attribute called msDS-KeyCredentialLink where raw public keys can be set. When trying to pre-authenticate with PKINIT, the KDC will check that the authenticating user has knowledge of the matching private key, and a TGT will be sent if there is a match.

There are multiple scenarios where an attacker can have control over an account that has the ability to edit the msDS-KeyCredentialLink (a.k.a. "kcl") attribute of other objects (e.g. member of a special group, has powerful ACEs, etc.). This allows attackers to create a key pair, append to raw public key in the attribute, and obtain persistent and stealthy access to the target object (can be a user or a computer).


In order to exploit that technique, the attacker needs to:

  1. be in a domain that supports PKINIT and containing at least one Domain Controller running Windows Server 2016 or above.

  2. be in a domain where the Domain Controller(s) has its own key pair (for the session key exchange) (e.g. happens when AD CS is enabled or when a certificate authority (CA) is in place).

  3. have control over an account that can edit the target object's msDs-KeyCredentialLink attribute.

The msDS-KeyCredentialLink feature was introduced with Windows Server 2016. However, this is not to be confused with PKINIT which was already present in Windows 2000. The msDS-KeyCredentialLink feature allows to link an X509 certificate to a domain object, that's all.

If those per-requisites are met, an attacker can

  1. create an RSA key pair

  2. create an X509 certificate configured with the public key

  3. create a KeyCredential structure featuring the raw public key and add it to the msDs-KeyCredentialLink attribute

  4. authenticate using PKINIT and the certificate and private key

From UNIX-like systems, the msDs-KeyCredentialLink attribute of a user or computer target can be manipulated with the pyWhisker tool. -d "FQDN_DOMAIN" -u "USER" -p "PASSWORD" --target "TARGET_SAMNAME" --action "list"

The "add" action from pywhisker is featured in ntlmrelayx.

ntlmrelayx -t ldap://dc02 --shadow-credentials --shadow-target 'dc01$'

When the public key has been set in the msDs-KeyCredentialLink of the target, the certificate generated can be used with Pass-the-Certificate to obtain a TGT and further access.

Nota bene

User objects can't edit their own msDS-KeyCredentialLink attribute while computer objects can. This means the following scenario could work: trigger an NTLM authentication from DC01, relay it to DC02, make pywhisker edit DC01's attribute to create a Kerberos PKINIT pre-authentication backdoor on it, and have persistent access to DC01 with PKINIT and pass-the-cache.

Computer objects can only edit their own msDS-KeyCredentialLink attribute if KeyCredential is not set already.


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