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Skeleton key


Skeleton key is a persistence attack used to set a master password on one or multiple Domain Controllers. The master password can then be used to authenticate as any user in the domain while they can still authenticate with their original password. It makes detecting this attack a difficult task since it doesn't disturb day-to-day usage in the domain.
Skeleton key injects itself into the LSASS process of a Domain Controller to create the master password. It requires Domain Admin rights and SeDebugPrivilege on the target (which are given by default to domain admins).
Since this attack is conducted in memory by reserving a region of memory with VirtualAllocEx() and by patching functions, the master password doesn't remain active after a DC reboot.
This attack currently supports NTLM and Kerberos (RC4 only) authentications. Below are a few explanation of how it works depending on the authentication protocol it injects a master key for.
NTLM auth
Kerberos auth
The attack employs a three-steps process to create a master password for NTLM authentication.
  1. 1.
    Reserves a memory region using VirtualAllocEx() for the lsass.exe process. This memory space is used to store a modified version of the NTLM password validation function MsvpPasswordValidate().
  2. 2.
    Attaches itself to the lsass.exe process and locates MsvpSamValidate() (authentication function) from MSV1_0.dll (which is the DLL in charge of NTLM authentication).
  3. 3.
    Finds the call to MsvpPasswordValidate() (password validation function) in MsvpSamValidate() and patches it to make it point to the modified MsvpPasswordValidate() stored in the memory region from step 1.
When called, the modified version of MsvpPasswordValidate() first calls the original MsvpPasswordValidate(): therefore if a legitimate authentication is tried, it will succeed.
If the original MsvpPasswordValidate() fails, the modified version will call the originalMsvpPasswordValidate() again but will make it compare password hash supplied during the authentication with the hash of the master password set when launching the attack (i.e. mimikatz by default when using Mimikatz for this attack).
The attack doesn't support salt-enabled key-derivation functions (i.e. AES128 and AES256) since it would either require to
  • compute the relevant user’s Skeleton Key in real time (which is designed to be costly and would likely cause issues on the DC)
  • or compute all of the domain users’ Skeleton Keys offline and store them, which requires a lot of memory.
The Skeleton Key attack then only supports RC4-HMAC-based Kerberos authentication, as RC4-HMAC’s key-derivation function does not involve a user-based salt (making the Skeleton RC4-HMAC key the same for all users).
There are three steps to create a skeleton key for Kerberos authentication:
  1. 1.
    Reserving a memory region for the lsass.exe process using VirtualAllocEx(). This memory space is used to store a modified version of Decrypt and SamIRetrieveMultiplePrimaryCredentials() functions used in following steps.
  2. 2.
    Making sure users will authenticate using RC4-HMAC encryption instead of AES encryption. In order to do that, SamIRetrieveMultiplePrimaryCredentials() function is hooked just like MsvpPasswordValidate() for NTLM and calls made to this function are patched. The hooked SamIRetrieveMultiplePrimaryCredentials() checks for the package name Kerberos-Newer-Keys and returns STATUS_DS_NO_ATTRIBUTE_OR_VALUE to effectively disable AES-based authentication.
  3. 3.
    Patching CDLocateCSystem() from cryptdll.dll to call a modified version of the Decrypt function. The modified Decrypt function works like the modified MsvpPasswordValidate() for NTLM : it first calls the original Decrypt function to make sure the users can still log on with their original username and password. Then if the previous step fails, it replaces the retrieved password hash with the supplied Skeleton RC4-HMAC key (which is the same as the Skeleton Key NTLM hash) and calls the original Decrypt function again, making the authentication successful.


Skeleton Key can be injected with the misc::skeleton command in Mimikatz. It works in every 64-bits Windows Server version up to 2019 (included).
Mimikatz must be either launched as NT-AUTHORITY\SYSTEM or be executed with a domain admin account on the Domain Controller. For the latter, debug privileges (SeDebugPrivilege) must be set for Mimikatz to work. This can be done with the privilege::debug command.
mimikatz "privilege::debug" "misc::skeleton"
By default, the master password injected is mimikatz.
Skeleton key injection and usage illustration on a Windows Server 2019