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Access Management

Tips and Best Practices to Secure Active Directory: Audit and Privileged Access Management


Active Directory (AD) is a useful service that helps organizations manage identities and control access to network resources, thus improving corporate cybersecurity. However, when poorly managed, AD can be exploited in a way that could harm an organization’s sensitive assets and operational resilience.

In this article, we briefly define what Active Directory is, list its main services, and discuss possible threats. We also explore in detail Active Directory security best practices based on two proven ways to keep AD safe and sound: an Active Directory audit and privileged access management.

The importance of Active Directory security

Why should you consider Active Directory security?

Active Directory, or AD, is a service that enables administrators to manage permissions and access to network resources. Developed by Microsoft for Windows domain networks, AD allows users and computers to access specific applications and files based on their identity.

AD significantly simplifies user authentication and access privilege management for administrators. It also supports redundant components and data replication to ensure resiliency.

Data is stored in AD as objects. Objects can be defined as resources (if they are applications or devices) or as security principals (if they are users or groups of users).

Windows Active Directory is comprised of five key services, with Active Directory Domain Services (AD DS) at its core:

Image - 5 key Active Directory services

Since admins use Active Directory for user authentication and authorization, it’s a common target for cybercriminals. Malicious actors, both external and internal, may want to attack AD because it can help them access an organization’s user accounts, databases, files, applications, and sensitive data.

Here are some of the most common threats to Active Directory:

Image - 4 threats to Active Directory

Default settings. Microsoft provides Windows Active Directory with predefined security settings, which may not be enough for your organization’s needs. Most hackers are already familiar with default settings and can use this knowledge when attempting to find and exploit AD security gaps.

Unnecessarily broad access rights. There’s always a risk that system administrators may grant too many privileges to a certain user or group of users. When provided with a higher level of access than needed to perform their jobs, users can be tempted with the opportunity to abuse their access rights with malicious intent. What’s more, if accounts with extra access privileges become compromised, external attackers will have access to your most valuable resources and data.

Weak passwords for admin accounts. Hackers are likely to use brute force attacks on AD environments, guessing simple passwords for administrative accounts. If those passwords are easy to crack, your organization’s data security is at risk.

Unpatched vulnerabilities on AD servers. Updating software to the latest version along with searching for and patching vulnerabilities is crucial. Otherwise, hackers can find their way into your organization’s IT environment by exploiting unpatched applications and operating systems on AD servers.

How to secure Active Directory

Since a security compromise of Active Directory can sabotage the integrity of your organization’s IT environment, it’s essential to apply preventive measures and keep an eye on AD protection. To do that, you should regularly perform an Active Directory security audit and establish privileged access management (PAM) within your organization.

Image - Key measures for securing your Active Directory

Let’s start by exploring the basics of the Active Directory auditing process and best practices for it.

Active Directory audit: checklist, goals, and best practices

As we already mentioned, Active Directory requires robust security measures. A crucial aspect of safeguarding your AD environment is through Active Directory auditing.

Active Directory auditing is a set of actions aimed at evaluating the overall security of your AD services. This comprehensive process goes beyond simply collecting data; it involves strategically monitoring and analyzing activities within your AD infrastructure.

Why audit Active Directory?

When done properly, Active Directory audits can help you improve security, promptly identify and respond to threats, and maintain smooth IT operations. There are three main goals of AD audits:

Image - Why audit Active Directory?

Auditing Active Directory helps businesses reduce security risks, such as:

  • Deeply nested groups that can be challenging to track. AD offers almost unlimited possibilities to create nested groups (groups that are members of other groups). And since nested groups inherit the same access rights as parent groups, there’s a risk of users having unnecessarily extensive permissions.
  • Directly assigned permissions that attackers can exploit to gain access to network resources.
  • Circular nesting that can cause security issues, such as providing users with too many application permissions or causing applications to crash.

Last but not least, security auditing of Active Directory can help organizations comply with various IT cybersecurity requirements. The most common standards, laws, and regulations obligate organizations to secure sensitive client data and control access to it. A dedicated SOX, GDPR, HIPAA, or SOC 2 compliance tool with an AD auditing function enables you to track actions (logging on and off, accessing files and folders, etc.) performed by users across your IT infrastructure.

What should Active Directory audits report on?

By knowing how to audit Active Directory and what to pay attention to, you gain valuable insights into user activities and system changes. This can help you detect suspicious behavior and prevent potential security breaches.

Here’s a checklist of things your security officers should focus on when they audit Active Directory:

Active Directory audit checklist

User access rights

Granting, modification, or elevation of privileges

Creation, modification, and deletion of user accounts

Logon and logoff events

Inactive accounts

Default Active Directory settings

Replicated Active Directory data

Password changes

Activities of administrators and other privileged users

Object access attempts

Your Active Directory audits should report on key user activities and system changes, such as account management, group memberships, logon attempts, password changes, and object access attempts.

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Now that you know what to pay attention to in your Active Directory audits, let’s dive into the best practices that are based on this knowledge.

Top 8 Active Directory auditing best practices

Every organization has its own strategy to secure Active Directory with an audit, but the most effective Active Directory auditing best practices are as follows:


Review and change default security settings


Limit the number of privileged users


Audit account logon and logoff events


Remove inactive and obsolete accounts


Use real-time Windows auditing and alerting


Ensure AD backup and recovery


Patch all vulnerabilities regularly


Automate alerting workflows

1. Review and change default security settings

Out-of-the-box AD security settings might not be sufficient for your specific needs. To strengthen the security of Active Directory, regularly review and adjust your settings related to password complexity, account lockout, and group membership permissions.

2. Limit the number of privileged users

Privileged access permissions give unrestricted power to users, compounding the risk of privilege abuse or misuse. Granting privileged access only to authorized individuals minimizes the risk of malicious activity and reduces the attack surface. Implement the principle of least privilege, granting users only the permissions they need to perform their assigned tasks.

3. Audit account logon and logoff events

One of the most effective best practices for maintaining Active Directory is monitoring user logon and logoff activity to identify suspicious attempts, such as unauthorized access from unusual locations or logons outside of regular work hours. This helps detect potential security breaches and enables the investigation of suspicious user behavior.

4. Remove inactive and obsolete accounts

Inactive and obsolete accounts pose a security risk, as they can be exploited by attackers. Regularly identify and disable such accounts to minimize the attack surface and improve overall AD hygiene.

5. Use real-time Windows auditing and alerting

While performing scheduled AD audits, you might miss critical events happening in real time. Incorporating real-time auditing and alerting capabilities into your security system allows you to receive immediate notifications of potential security threats. This results in a faster response time and risk mitigation.

6. Ensure AD backup and recovery

Regularly back up your AD data to ensure you have a reliable recovery point in case of cyberattacks, accidental deletions, and other incidents. Your backups will enable you to quickly restore essential data and minimize possible downtime.

7. Patch all vulnerabilities regularly

Unpatched vulnerabilities enable cyber attackers to gain unauthorized access to your systems and sensitive data. Install security updates frequently to address software vulnerabilities and minimize the risk of exploitation.

8. Automate alerting workflows

Manually monitoring audit logs can be time-consuming and inefficient. Automate the process of analyzing logs and generating alerts for critical events. This will allow your IT team to focus on investigating and responding to potential threats instead of spending time sifting through data.

Apart from an AD audit, you can also leverage privileged access management (PAM) practices to enhance the security of your Active Directory environment. Let’s take a closer look at what PAM is and what benefits it brings to your AD security.

PAM-based Active Directory protection: benefits and best practices

Privileged access management (PAM) is a comprehensive cybersecurity strategy that aims to control, monitor, audit, and secure all human and non-human privileged identities and activities across an enterprise IT environment.

Establishing robust privileged access management is a must to secure an organization’s data and systems as well as to eliminate various AD-related risks. This is imperative since AD itself is managed by privileged accounts. And if these accounts get abused, malicious actors can take advantage of the access privileges assigned to them.

System administrators often center privileged access management solutions around an organization’s Active Directory environment as a way of delegating privileged access from a centralized monitored location.

Taking a PAM approach to securing AD helps you to:

  • Identify users with elevated privileges
  • Detect users with unnecessarily broad access rights
  • Manage all privileged accounts from a single point
  • Reduce the risks of privilege misuse and data leaks
Image - 4 reasons to rely on PAM for Active Directory protection

6 best practices for securing active directory with PAM

To get the most out of leveraging PAM to secure your AD environment, let’s explore six helpful best practices for establishing proper privileged access management:


Keep an inventory of all privileged accounts


Balance privileges with user needs


Use multi-factor authentication


Manage access controls


Monitor the behavior of privileged users


Manage shared accounts

1. Keep an inventory of all privileged accounts

Active Directory monitoring best practices include increasing visibility and managing privileged accounts. Keeping an inventory of all privileged accounts will help you:

  • Know which users can access sensitive data
  • Check that privileged access is still necessary for certain users
  • Remove elevated access rights once a user doesn’t require them anymore
Image - Why keep an inventory of privileged accounts?

The resultant list of privileged accounts is determined by the access control solution or directory service you are using. In Active Directory, default groups of privileged accounts include:

However, there can be other groups of privileged accounts within your organization’s infrastructure.

Compiling and managing a list of privileged accounts manually is inefficient, especially for a large organization. Instead, you can use a cybersecurity tool that can automatically discover and display all privileged accounts. You may also want to follow system administration best practices to protect your privileged user accounts.

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2. Balance privileges with user needs

The fewer access privileges you grant a user, the lower the risk of their misusing these privileges and causing an insider-related incident. However, it’s often a challenge to minimize privileges without impacting employee efficiency.

To overcome this challenge, consider using one or more of the following techniques:

Image - 3 techniques for minimizing privileges
  • Zero trust is a security approach in which access to protected resources is only granted to authenticated and verified users.
  • The principle of least privilege states that users should be able to access only the information and resources that are necessary for a legitimate purpose.
  • Just-in-time privileged access management (JIT PAM) means that only the right users can be provided with privileged access to certain systems and resources, only for a valid reason, and only for a specific time.

With Ekran System, you can minimize privileges conveniently and efficiently, securing access not only to your AD environment but to your organization’s systems and data:

  • Approve access manually to determine who can access what and when
  • Integrate leading ticketing systems to validate the reasons for privileged access requests
  • Configure time-based user access restrictions
  • Use one-time passwords to secure temporary access to the most critical endpoints

Privileged Access Management with Ekran System

3. Use multi-factor authentication

Since even strong and secured credentials can be stolen or leaked, it’s always a good idea to enable multi-factor authentication (MFA).

With MFA, users provide something they possess like a key, security token, or smartphone to verify their identity in addition to login and password. Thus, you minimize the risks of unauthorized access to Active Directory.

Image - Verification factors for MFA

Ekran System offers two-factor authentication (2FA) that uses time-based one-time passwords as a second authentication factor to help you protect your valuable corporate assets. Ekran System’s 2FA is also universal and cross-platform, so you can use it for both Linux and Windows servers.

4. Manage access controls

Efficiently managing access controls is a surefire way to minimize security risks related to excessive access rights. There are two models that address this: role-based access control (RBAC) and attribute-based access control (ABAC).

Role-based access control

An access control method that assigns every employee a role. An employee can access objects and execute operations only if their role in the system has relevant permissions.

Attribute-based access control

An access control method in which attributes can be modified for the needs of a particular user without creating a new role.

Here are some attribute-based access control and role-based access control advantages and disadvantages.

With the RBAC model, you can easily authorize, restrict, and revoke access for certain groups of users instead of dealing with each user independently. However, you can’t assign permissions to objects and operations, just as you can’t restrict access to certain data within a system.

The ABAC model provides you with the opportunity to describe a business rule of any complexity. For example, you can allow employees to access certain data only during work hours. On the downside, specifying and maintaining such complex policies makes an ABAC system challenging to configure.

5. Monitor the behavior of privileged users

Privileged user monitoring is a common practice within organizations as it helps you know what data users access and what changes they make.

In addition to access monitoring, you can also monitor the behavior of privileged users. Thus, you will be able to detect abnormalities in how users act, which can be a sign of malicious activity or a compromised account.

With Ekran System, you can easily establish robust monitoring of privileged user activity and leverage the following benefits:

  • Monitor, record, and audit all privileged user sessions on selected endpoints
  • Continue recording a session in offline mode if the server connection is lost
  • Detect abnormal actions and instantly notify security officers about them

In addition, you can use Ekran System to automatically generate various user activity reports and analyze overall user activity.

Microsoft Azure Windows Virtual Desktop Monitoring with Ekran System

6. Manage shared accounts

While unsafe, organizations tend to use shared accounts for network administration or working with third-party services. Thus, different users can log in to the same account under the same credentials to perform certain work-related activities.

But without proper management, shared accounts can become a source of cybersecurity threats, leaving you unable to identify the particular individual behind an incident.

Manage shared accounts

Review all accounts with shared access

Remove unnecessary permissions

Enable secondary authentication

First and foremost, you should review all shared accounts and check whether shared access is in fact required. If not, remove permissions for users who don’t need them. For the remaining shared accounts, it’s best to enable secondary authentication. This way, you’ll be able to distinguish the actions of particular users performed under a shared account and investigate any security incidents that occur.

You can also leverage Ekran System’s capabilities as an identity management solution, including secondary authentication to distinguish users of shared and built-in accounts. Gain full visibility into actions performed under generic credentials for root and admin accounts.

Identity Management with Ekran System


Keeping your Active Directory environment protected from possible misuse and attacks is a significant part of an effective cybersecurity strategy. Implementing our best practices for securing Active Directory — privileged access management and regular AD audits — will ensure the security of your organization’s most critical assets.

Ekran System offers a wide selection of features to help you effectively manage user access rights, monitor user activity, and detect suspicious activity before it leads to a cybersecurity incident. With Ekran System, you can secure access to your Active Directory environment while simultaneously implementing Linux/Unix and Windows user activity monitoring.

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