Be careful about using the built-in “low privilege” service accounts…

One of the security enhancements in the Windows XP and Windows Server 2003 timeframe was to move a number of the built-in services that ship with the OS to run as a more restricted user account than LocalSystem. Specifically, two new built-in accounts akin to LocalSystem were introduced exclusively for use with services: The local service and network service accounts. These are essentially slightly more powerful than plain user accounts, but not powerful enough such that a compromise will mean the entire system is a write-off.

The intention here was to reduce the attack surface of the system as a whole, such that if a service that is running as LocalService or NetworkService is compromised, then it cannot be used to take over the system as a whole.

(For those curious, the difference between LocalService and NetworkService is only evident in domain scenarios. If the computer is joined to a domain, LocalService authenticates as a guest on the network, while NetworkService (like LocalSystem) authenticates as the computer account.)

Now, reducing the amount of code running as LocalSystem is a great thing pretty much all around, but there are some sticking points with the way the two built-in service accounts work that aren’t really covered in the documentation. Specifically, that there are a whole lot of other services that run as either LocalService or NetworkService nowadays, and by virtue of the fact that they all run as the same security context they can be compromised as one unit. In other words, if you compromise one LocalService process, you can attack all other LocalService processes, because they are running under the same security context.

Think about that for a minute. That effectively means that the attack surface of any LocalService process can in some sense be considered the sum of the attack surface of all LocalService processes on the same computer. Moreover, that means that as you offload more and more services to run as LocalService, the problem gets worse. (Although, it’s still better than the situation when everybody ran as LocalSystem, certainly.)

Windows Vista improves on this a little bit; in Vista, LocalService and NetworkService processes do have a little bit of protection from eachother, in that each service instance is assigned a unique SID that is marked as the owner for the process object (even though the process is running as LocalService or NetworkService). Furthermore, the default DACL for processes running as LocalService or NetworkService only grants access to administrators and the service-unique SID. This means that in Vista, one compromised LocalService process can’t simply use OpenProcess and WriteProcessMemory (or the like) to take complete control over another service process in Vista.

You can easily see this in action in the kernel debugger. Here’s what things look like in Vista:

kd> !process fffffa80022e0c10
PROCESS fffffa80022e0c10
    Token   fffff88001e3e060
kd> !token fffff88001e3e060
_TOKEN fffff88001e3e060
TS Session ID: 0
User: S-1-5-19
 10 S-1-5-5-0-107490
    Attributes - Mandatory Default Enabled Owner LogonId 
kd> !object fffffa80022e0c10
Object: fffffa80022e0c10  Type: (fffffa8000654840) Process
    ObjectHeader: fffffa80022e0be0 (old version)
    HandleCount: 5  PointerCount: 96
kd> dt nt!_OBJECT_HEADER fffffa80022e0be0
   +0x028 SecurityDescriptor : 0xfffff880`01e14c26 
kd> !sd 0xfffff880`01e14c20
->Revision: 0x1
->Dacl    : ->Ace[0]: ->AceType: ACCESS_ALLOWED_ACE_TYPE
->Dacl    : ->Ace[0]: ->AceFlags: 0x0
->Dacl    : ->Ace[0]: ->AceSize: 0x1c
->Dacl    : ->Ace[0]: ->Mask : 0x001fffff
->Dacl    : ->Ace[0]: ->SID: S-1-5-5-0-107490

->Dacl    : ->Ace[1]: ->AceType: ACCESS_ALLOWED_ACE_TYPE
->Dacl    : ->Ace[1]: ->AceFlags: 0x0
->Dacl    : ->Ace[1]: ->AceSize: 0x18
->Dacl    : ->Ace[1]: ->Mask : 0x00001400
->Dacl    : ->Ace[1]: ->SID: S-1-5-32-544

Looking at winnt.h, we can see that S-1-5-5-X-Y corresponds to a logon session SID. In Vista, each LocalService/NetworkService service process gets its own logon session SID.

By making the process owned by a different user than it is running as, and not allowing access to the user that the service is running as (but instead the logon session), the service is provided some measure of protection against processes in the same user context. This may not provide complete protection, though, as in general, any securable objects such as files or registry keys that contain an ACE matching against LocalService or NetworkService will be at the mercy of all such processes. To Microsoft’s credit, however, the default DACL in the token for such LocalService/NetworkService services doesn’t grant GenericAll to the user account for the service, but rather the service SID (another concept that is unique to Vista and future systems).

Furthermore, it seems like many of the ACLs that previously referred to LocalService/NetworkService are being transitioned to use service SIDs instead, which may again over time make LocalService/NetworkService once again viable, after all the third party software in the world that makes security decisions on those two SIDs is updated (hmm…), and the rest of the ACLs that refer to the old generalized SIDs that have fallen through the cracks are updated (check out AccessEnum from SysInternals to see where those ACLs have slipped through the cracks in Vista – there are at least a couple of places in WinSxS that mention LocalService or NetworkService for write access in my machine, and that isn’t even considering the registry or the more ephemeral kernel object namespace yet).

In Windows Server 2003, things are pretty bleak with respect to isolation between LocalService/NetworkService services. Service processes have direct access to eachother, as shown by their default security descriptors. The default security descriptor doesn’t allow direct access, but does allow one to rewrite it to grant oneself access as the owner field matches LocalService:

lkd> !process fffffadff39895c0 1
PROCESS fffffadff3990c20
    Token                             fffffa800132b9e0
lkd> !token fffffa800132b9e0
_TOKEN fffffa800132b9e0
TS Session ID: 0
User: S-1-5-19
 07 S-1-5-5-0-44685
    Attributes - Mandatory Default Enabled LogonId
lkd> !object fffffadff3990c20
Object: fffffadff3990c20  Type: (fffffadff4310a00) Process
    ObjectHeader: fffffadff3990bf0 (old version)
    HandleCount: 3  PointerCount: 21
lkd> dt nt!_OBJECT_HEADER fffffadff3990bf0
   +0x028 SecurityDescriptor : 0xfffffa80`011441ab 
lkd> !sd 0xfffffa80`011441a0
->Revision: 0x1
->Sbz1    : 0x0
->Control : 0x8004
->Owner   : S-1-5-19
->Dacl    : ->Ace[0]: ->AceType: ACCESS_ALLOWED_ACE_TYPE
->Dacl    : ->Ace[0]: ->AceFlags: 0x0
->Dacl    : ->Ace[0]: ->AceSize: 0x1c
->Dacl    : ->Ace[0]: ->Mask : 0x001f0fff
->Dacl    : ->Ace[0]: ->SID: S-1-5-5-0-44685

->Dacl    : ->Ace[1]: ->AceType: ACCESS_ALLOWED_ACE_TYPE
->Dacl    : ->Ace[1]: ->AceFlags: 0x0
->Dacl    : ->Ace[1]: ->AceSize: 0x14
->Dacl    : ->Ace[1]: ->Mask : 0x00100201
->Dacl    : ->Ace[1]: ->SID: S-1-5-18

Again looking at winnt.h, we clearly see that S-1-5-19 is LocalService. So, there is absolutely no protection at all from one compromised LocalService process attacking another, at least in Windows Server 2003.

Note that if you are marked as the owner of an object, you can rewrite the DACL freely by requesting a handle with WRITE_DAC access and then modifying the DACL field with a function like SetKernelObjectSecurity. From there, all you need to do is re-request a handle with the desired access, after modifying the security descriptor to grant yourself said access. This is easy to verify experimentally by writing a test service that runs as LocalService and requesting WRITE_DAC in an OpenProcess call for another LocalService service process.

To make matters worse, nowadays most services run in shared svchost processes, which means if one process in that svchost is compromised, the whole process is a write off.

I would recommend seriously considering using dedicated unique user accounts for your services in certain scenarios as a result of this unpleasant mess. In the case where you have a security sensitive service that doesn’t need high privileges (i.e. it doesn’t require LocalSystem), it is often the wrong thing to do to just stuff it in with the rest of the LocalService or NetworkService services due to the vastly increased attack surface over running as a completely isolated user account, even if setting up a unique user account is a pain to do programmatically.

Note that although Vista attempts to mitigate this problem by ensuring that LocalService/NetworkService services cannot directly interfere with eachother in the most obvious sense of opening eachother’s processes and writing code into eachother’s address spaces, this is really only a small measure of protection due to the problem that one LocalService process’s data files are at the mercy of every other LocalService process out there. I think that it would be extremely unwise to stake your system security on there being no way to compromise one LocalService process from another in Vista, even with its mitigations; it may be slightly more difficult, but I’d hardly write it off as impossible.

Given all of this, I would steer clear of NetworkService and LocalService for sensitive but unprivileged processes (and yes, I would consider such a thing a real scenario, as you don’t need to be a computer administrator to store valuable data on a computer; you just need there to not be an untrusted (or compromised) computer administrator on the box).

One thing I am actually kind of curious about is what the SWI rationale is for even allowing the svchost paradigm by default, given how it tends to (negatively, from the perspective of system security) multiply the attack surface of all svchost’d processes. Using svchosts completely blows away the security improvements Vista makes to LocalService / NetworkService, as far as I can tell. Even though there are some services that are partitioned off in their own svchosts, there’s still one giant svchost group in Vista that has something on the order of like ~20 services in it (ugh!). Not to mention that svchosts make debugging a nightmare, but that’s a topic for another posting.

Update: Andrew Rogers pointed out that I originally posted the security descriptor for a LocalSystem process in the Windows Server 2003 example, instead of for a LocalService process. Whoops! It actually turns out that contrary to what I originally wrote, the DACL on LocalService processes on Windows Server 2003 doesn’t explicitly allow access to LocalService, but LocalService is still named as the object owner, so it is trivial to gain that access anyway, as previously mentioned (at least for Windows Server 2003).

4 Responses to “Be careful about using the built-in “low privilege” service accounts…”

  1. Eric W says:

    See this Larry Osterman blog ( for a good reason why you would want to run several services in the same process (hint: the answer is performance).

  2. Skywing says:

    There are, however, many things that are completely unrelated which still get stuffed into svchost instances. For example, the audio service and the DHCP client.

    I’m sure the main reason is just to reduce the number of running processes and thus memory usage. However, there are downsides to this approach.

    For example, say there is some hypothetical bug in the dhcp client service that allows remote code execution over the network. Still local service though, so “no big deal”. Now, what if another hypothetical service sharing its process happens to implement an RPC server that privileged clients occasionally connect to, with those clients allowing impersonation implicitly or explicitly. Now, by virtue of compromising a low privileged service, you can leap-frog to another low privileged service running an RPC server that gets the opportunity to impersonate high privileged clients – bad news!

    That’s just one of the reasons why I’m kind of wary of svchosts from a security standpoint.

  3. […] Previously, I discussed some of the pitfalls with LocalService and NetworkService, especially with respect to pre-Windows-Vista platforms (e.g. Windows Server 2003). […]

  4. […] in Vista and Windows server 2008), the sort of additive attack surface problem I described in the previous article comes into play. To give a basic example, try attaching to the svchost that runs the […]