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Primary Group Behavior, Reporting and Exploitation

Updated: May 25, 2023


If you’ve administered Active Directory (AD) for any significant time, chances are you’ve come across the primaryGroupID attribute. Originally developed as a method for AD to support POSIX-compliant applications, the attribute has been better known by a different name: An Attack Vector. Commonly referenced in a DCShadow attack, an adversary can set a user’s primaryGroupID to 512 (Domain Admins) and effectively become a member of that group.

One of the post important concepts to grasp here is this: AD group membership is the combination of “members” in a group as well as any user with the primary group set.

Deep down, the two attributes are separate, AD just attempts to combine the two for convenience. However, this convenience is not universal and various AD tools report on group membership differently. This inconsistency in reporting can cause issues with monitoring & alerting on group changes and group enumeration. (This is not a new revelation; we can date this conversation all the way back to 2005.)

Finally, since the primaryGroupID is an independent attribute, it is possible for an attacker to modify the Discretionary Access Control List (DACL), effectively hiding group membership from all users in the forest, even Domain Admins.


When I first investigated primary groups, I assumed that an attacker could use this attribute to sneakily maintain the privileges associated with the group without appearing in the group membership. This turned out to only be partially true.

When attempting to remove group membership for a primary group using Active Directory Users and Computers (ADUC), the Administrator is met with this message:

Even when using the PowerShell cmdlet Remove-ADGroupMember you get a similar error message:

The next logical step was to avoid traditional tools and attack the AD database directly. Performing a DCShadow attack would bypass LSASS and would allow direct modification of the primaryGroupID attribute. So, loading up mimikatz, I performed an attack to set primaryGroupID to 512 outlined in the screenshot below:

Prior to these changes, the Hacker user account was only a member of the Domain Users group. By default, Domain Users is also configured as Hacker’s Primary Group.

After the attack, the Hacker user account Primary Group has been changed to Domain Admins but it has lost its membership to the Domain Users group.

A DCShadow attack replaces the Primary Group but it also strips the corresponding group membership for the previously set Primary group. This attack is not limited to only Domain Admins group, using any group will result in the same outcome. Using the DSInternals function Set-ADDBPrimaryGroup yielded the same results:

In testing, I have determined it is not possible to decouple these two attributes. Changing the Primary Group ID on a user will always coincide with a group addition (see above). Further proof of this is the removal of membership from the Domain Users group. To reiterate, changing a user’s Primary Group ID also removes their membership from the original Primary Group.

While these two attacks can be “sneaky” (by directly updating the AD Database), existence of a new Domain Admin would eventually be discovered unless you are using the wrong commands to report on group membership. 😈

Behavior and Misconceptions

Further research into the primaryGroupID revealed that group membership reports differently depending on the method used to perform the query. Regardless of how the primaryGroupID is set, using the PowerShell cmdlets “Get-ADGroup” and “Get-ADGroupMember” return different results:

The Hacker user account has been added to the “Domain Admins” group and set as primaryGroupID. Get-ADGroup does not list Hacker as a member; Get-ADGroupMember does. Furthermore, when using Get-ADUser the memberOf attribute is empty yet, running net group will list Hacker as a member.

ADUC and Admin Center will both list all members including those with primaryGroupID set. However, if digging directly into ADSI Edit, the member attribute for the Domain Admins group does not include any user with the primaryGroupID configured.

Here is a recap of which tools return primaryGroupID members and which don’t:

Once recursive queries and nested groups are introduced into the equation, nothing can be trusted. In this example, The Domain Admins group contains 2 users and 1 nestedDAs group. The nestedDAs group contains 2 additional users. The hidden user account has its primary group set to nestedDAs. Performing a recursive query using Get-ADGroupMember or by using an LDAP filter does not return hidden as a member.

Monitor Your Monitoring

Trimarc asks all clients two very important questions.

1. Are you monitoring privileged groups for membership changes?

2. Are you monitoring privileged groups for enumeration?

While these questions seem straight forward, how does primaryGroupID impact these questions? If directly looking at the group objects, is it possible that user objects are slipping through the cracks? Setting up test scenarios may be the best way to truly identify if this blind spot exists in your environment.

In short, check your scripts and tools. Confirm that any reporting or monitoring being used is properly reporting on members with primaryGroupID configured. Failure to do so may result in inconsistent reporting or could mean you have some unknown Administrators.

Real Exploitation

Now that we have an understanding of how the primaryGroupID behaves, it’s possible to comprehend a real attack strategy. Yuval Gordon wrote a paper that explains a method of abusing the primaryGroupID by modifying the DACL on a user object. In the context of our examples, this DACL would be applied to the Hacker user account. It effectively sets a deny permission for the “Everyone” group on the ability to read the primaryGroupID attribute.

This technique only works for objects not protected by SDProp. Membership in any of these groups periodically have permissions restamped and would remove the deny DACL rights.

Once a user has these permissions configured any (unprotected) group set as the Primary Group becomes invisible on both the user and group object. In this example, the user Hacker is a member of the HideMe group. Notice the Primary Group appears as <None> and Hacker does not appear in the Members tab.

Even more impressive, it’s illusive to all PowerShell commands. The only tested method that properly reports the membership is “net group”:

Yuval offers the following script to query for users without a primaryGroupID, or more accurately, without a readable primaryGroupID:

In addition, checking for any non-standard primaryGroupID may reveal any misconfigured users. A similar attack method is possible when setting the deny DACL on the group object. This will also hide group membership, but the Primary Group is still readable on the user object:

Unless there is a valid reason to retain a non-standard Primary Group, all users should be set to Domain Users (513).

Goofing Off

Hackers like to make things do something they aren’t supposed to do. Just goofing off during testing, I found that it’s possible to add a user to a group twice. Performing a DCShadow or DSInternals attack on an account that is already a member of Domain Admins, and has a Primary Group set as anything else results in a double-DA state. I don’t know what this means but I hope it’s the only time you see a hacker as a Domain Admin.

So, what’s it all mean?

This adventure into the primaryGroupID touched on the use of attack tools and sneaky methods that may allow attackers to persist in your environment. The two key takeaways that everyone should understand are as follows:

1. You should be reporting on the current primaryGroupID of all user objects in AD. Scrutinize any user that may be granted privileged group membership in this way. Note that “privileged” does not always mean Domain Admin. Any non-standard users should be reset to Domain Users.

2. You should be reviewing and testing all scripts, tools, and monitoring that report on group membership. Membership using primaryGroupIDs may be missed depending on the PowerShell cmdlet or API used to report on group members. Logging and reporting on group changes may have a blind spot when it comes to the use of primaryGroupIDs.

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