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Windows: Disabling PAC Validation Brings More than meets the eyes

A lot of bloggers have published how to configure Kerberos authentication “how-to” on the Internet, many of them focusing on IIS, Asp.Net and subsequently SharePoint. Some report performance boost over NTLM, others described how to disable “PAC Validation” and increase that performance gain even more.

Recently, I was asked to evaluated that configuration, ensure it works as expected and measure the effective gain from an end-user perspective. This post is a quick summary of the findings not subject to NDA.

What is a PAC and what is PAC Validation (actually PAC Signature Verification)

PAC stands for “Privilege Account Certificate”. It is a data structure contained in some Kerberos requests. It actually contains authorization-oriented information’s such as the group membership of an authenticated user, his/her SID (and SID history) as well as other information’s such as user flags or the time when a forced logoff should potentially happen (most are stuffs you usually configure on the “Account” and “Group Membership” tabs of the AD Users and Computers console.

Since the original Kerberos protocol did not cover the “authorization” part while windows had to maintains the compatibility when switching from NTLM to Kerberos, MS had no other choice than implementing a proprietary extension named PAC. Since the PAC travels over the network when users authenticate to servers (and service actually), it may be altered by malicious user able to decrypt it and modify it on the fly. The purpose of PAC Signature Verification is to make sure the PAC is unaltered when it is used by the server/Service for granting access

The verification/validation process takes place between a server and a domain controller of the domain the server belongs to. The server sends over RPC (therefore NOT using the standard Kerberos protocol) a request to the domain controller of the domain it belongs to specify it wants to verify the PAC signature and of-course, includes that signature (not the PAC itself). if the PAC whose signature is to be validated does not belong to the same domain as the server’s domain, the domain controller contacted for that purpose will follow the trust relationship in order to finally located a domain controller for the user’s domain and send the verification request to it. PAC verification is therefore a security feature implemented to prevent malicious alteration of user’s privileges.

Some people indicate that the verification process brings such an overhead to authentication that Kerberos finally becomes less performing, making end-user’s perceive poor performances and therefore behaves like NTLM or Basic (in term of performance, not security of course).

How to disable it (when you can)

There are 2 main scenario’s in which validation will not occur as long as specific conditions are met:

  • The server must run as least Windows Server 2003 Service Pack 2, the registry must include the setting “ValidateKdcPacSignature” set to “1” (default on Server 2008) and the server application is a Windows system service (its primary security token actually include the “SERVICE” SID)
  • The server application’s identity is granted seTcb privilege (aka Act as part of the operating system) and makes an effective use of it.

Witnessing the PAC Signature Verification Process

From a technical (read “measurable”) perspective, there are multiple ways to witness the PAC verification process:

1. Use a network traffic analyzing tool such as MS Netmon or Wireshark and look for RPC communications between the server and the DC of its own domain right after the user’s attempted to authenticate against that server. Captured using Netmon 3.3, it would look like this:

From the server to the DC: NetLogonr:NetrLogonSamLogonEx Request, NLRNetrLogonSamLogonEx, Encrypted Data

Reply from the DC: NetLogonr:NetrLogonSamLogonEx Response

2. Enable netlogon logging and look for entries such as hereunder:

07/31 15:56:23 [LOGON] SamLogon: Generic logon of MYDOMAIN.LOCAL(null) from (null) Package:Kerberos Returns 0x0

3. Enable Kerberos tracing/lsass logging and look for entries such as

396.500> Kerb-Warn: KerbVerifyPacSignature contacting domain MYDOMAIN.LOCAL for user MYUSER

Some noticeable behaviors…

IIS application pools do not run as “service”, they usually logon as “BATCH” BUT their process token will include the “SERVICE” SID if the identity used to run them is “LocalSystem” or “NetworkService”. Since you cannot used these identities when multiple IIS servers are used in a cluster or a “farm”, Kerberos requiring a domain account, there is very little chance (read no chance) for the PAC validation to be disabled.

Accidentally, this gave me the opportunity to witness that when you schedule a batch job under the context of the “NetworkService”, it will actually get the ‘”SERVICE” SID too!

Although online documentation reports that verification does not occur if the server’s process token holds the seTcb right, this did not seem to be sufficient. The application must explicitly make use of it.Simply granting the right will not lead to preventing PAC validation. This makes sense if you look at the reasons’ why seTcb is often granted: it allows to make use of the S4U Kerberos extension which enable, for example, the ability to perform user logon without having to provide any password (!). These extensions are often used in single sign-on solutions or packages and allow easy transitioning of identities. Since in that case, the a new token is “regenerated”, there is no use in verifying a PAC signature

Generally speaking, granting the SeTCB right is something to be cautiously evaluated before implementation because it would allow its holder to perform OS-level operations such as, for example, logging on as a given domain user without knowing his/her password.

(Challengeable) Conclusions

  • Disabling effectively PAC Signature Validation is a no-brainer when the server application is running as a Windows system service (MS Exchange Store, File & Print  Sharing, MS SQL Server…). IIS Application Pools are NO Windows system services, they require special care and some scenario will not allow preventing PAC Signature Verification
  • Granting the seTcb privilege (aka Act as part of the operating system) is not sufficient per-se to prevent PAC Validation. The server application must effectively make use of the privilege by, for example, making use of MS proprietary Kerberos extensions like Service 4 User (S4U)
  • Disabling PAC validation on a SharePoint farm (IIS application pool running with a domain identity instead of Network Service) in order to prevent roundtrip to domain controllers when a user is authenticating against a WFE will not work, unlike stated by many bloggers!
  • Finally, Unless the authentication rate is extremely high and/or the server must authenticate users from “remote” domain with high-latency communications, disabling PAC Verification does not significantly improves performances.

More Information (to be decoded and tested properly!)

I would like to thank the Windows security specialist Emmanuel Dreux ( for his help and input while deciphering Windows’s internal security behavior as well as my colleague Olivier B for his nearly encyclopedic knowledge of Kerberos on Windows.

I am aware my conclusions may seem to conflict with 1) Some official MS documentation 2) the technical recommendations of highly influential bloggers. Test it careful and feel free to report your findings here!



Author: Marc Lognoul

Relentless cloud professional. Restless rider. Happy husband. Proud father. Opinions are my own.

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