Roles Allowing To Abuse Entra ID Federation for Persistence and Privilege Escalation

Clément Notin [Tenable]
Tenable TechBlog
Published in
17 min readJan 9, 2024

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Introduction

Microsoft Entra ID (formerly known as Azure AD) allows delegation of authentication to another identity provider through the legitimate federation feature. However, attackers with elevated privileges can abuse this feature, leading to persistence and privilege escalation 💥.

But what are exactly these “elevated privileges” that are required to do so? 🤔 In this article, we are going to see that the famous “Global Administrator” role is not the only one allowing it! 😉 Follow along (or skip to the conclusion!) to learn which of your Entra administrators have this power, since these are the ones that you must protect first.

This was discovered by Tenable Research while working on identity security.

Federation?

By default, users submit their credentials to Entra ID (usually on the login.microsoftonline.com domain) which is in charge of validating them, either on its own if it’s a cloud-only account, or helped by the on-premises Active Directory (using hashes of AD password hashes already synchronized from AD via password hash sync, or by sending the password to AD for verification via pass-through authentication).

But there is another option: a Microsoft Entra tenant can use federation with a custom domain to establish trust with another domain for authentication and authorization. Organizations mainly use federation to delegate authentication for Active Directory users to their on-premises Active Directory Federation Services (AD FS). This is similar to the concept of “trust” in Active Directory. ⚠️ However, do not confuse the “custom domain” with an Active Directory “domain”!

When a user types their email on the login page, Entra ID detects when the domain is federated and then redirects the user to the URL of the corresponding Identity Provider (IdP), which obtains and verifies the user’s credentials, before redirecting the user to Entra ID with their proof (or failure) of authentication in the form of a signed SAML or WS-Federation (“WS-Fed” for short) token.

🏴‍☠️ However, if malicious actors gain elevated privileges in Microsoft Entra ID, they can abuse this federation mechanism to create a backdoor by creating a federated domain, or modifying an existing one, allowing them to impersonate anyone, even bypassing MFA.

The potential for abuse of this legitimate feature was initially discovered by Dr. Nestori Syynimaa: “Security vulnerability in Azure AD & Office 365 identity federation”, where he described how it concerns even cloud-only users, and even allows bypassing MFA, and further described it in “How to create a backdoor to Azure AD — part 1: Identity federation”. If you are curious, he also shared a “Deep-dive to Azure Active Directory Identity Federation”. He also hosts an OSINT tool allowing to list the domains, including if they are federated (to which IdP), of any tenant without even having to be authenticated to it!

This technique is currently used by threat actors, such as reported by Microsoft Incident Response on October 2023 in “Octo Tempest crosses boundaries to facilitate extortion, encryption, and destruction”:

Octo Tempest targets federated identity providers using tools like AADInternals to federate existing domains, or spoof legitimate domains by adding and then federating new domains. The threat actor then abuses this federation to generate forged valid security assertion markup language (SAML) tokens for any user of the target tenant with claims that have MFA satisfied, a technique known as Golden SAML

I also wrote an article describing how attackers can exploit the federated authentication’s secondary token-signing certificate for stealthier persistence and privilege escalation.

The corresponding MITRE ATT&CK techniques are:

🛡️ You will find recommendations to defend against this at the end of this article.

This federation feature for internal users (aka “members”) must not be confused with another federation feature in Entra ID, meant for guests (aka “external identities”) which allows “Federation with SAML/WS-Fed identity providers for guest users” using configurable “Identity Providers for External Identities”. This research and article are focused on the former: internal federation.

APIs available to interact with Entra ID

Performing this attack requires interacting with Entra ID of course, which is done through APIs. There are several available, offering more or less the same features, as described by Dr. Nestori Syynimaa in his talk “AADInternals: How did I built the ultimate Azure AD hacking tool from the scratch”. However, we will see that sometimes, an action that is forbidden for a certain role by one API is allowed by another! 😨 The behavior of some actions is also different between the APIs, while some actions are only possible with older APIs.

I prefer mentioning the APIs instead of the admin (i.e. PowerShell) or hack tools that I used, since it is what actually matters whether the tool calling them.

🟥 Provisioning API / MSOnline (MSOL)

The MSOnline V1 PowerShell module is going to be ⚠️ deprecated soon in March 2024 but it is still working, so it remains available to attackers too. You can recognize its usage because all the cmdlets contain “Msol”, for example “Get-MsolUser”.

It relies on an API unofficially called the “provisioning API” available at the “https://provisioningapi.microsoftonline.com/provisioningwebservice.svc” address. This API is not publicly documented and it uses the SOAP protocol.

It was replaced by the Azure AD Graph API (see below).

🟦 Azure AD Graph API

Likewise, the AzureAD PowerShell module is going to be ⚠️ deprecated soon in March 2024 but it is still working, so it remains available to attackers too. You can recognize its usage because all the cmdlets contain “AzureAD”, for example “Get-AzureADUser”.

It relies on an API called the Azure AD Graph API available on https://graph.windows.net/. This API is publicly documented and it exposes REST endpoints.

It was replaced by the Microsoft Graph API (see below), with which it must not be confused.

🟩 Microsoft Graph API / Microsoft Graph PowerShell SDK

Microsoft Graph is the newest API offered, and currently recommended, by Microsoft to interact with Entra ID and other Microsoft cloud services (e.g. Microsoft 365). The API is available on https://graph.microsoft.com. It is publicly documented and it exposes REST endpoints.

There are also several SDKs offered to interact with it, including the Microsoft Graph PowerShell SDK. You can recognize its usage because all the cmdlets contain “Mg”, for example “Get-MgUser”.

Entra roles and permissions

Entra ID follows the RBAC model to declare who can do what. Principals (user, group, service principal) are assigned Roles on some Scope (entire tenant, or specific Administrative Unit, or even a single object). Each Entra Role is defined by the Entra Permissions (also called “actions” in Microsoft documentation) it gives.

⚠️ Do not confuse Entra RBAC, using Entra roles and meant to control access to Entra ID resources (users, groups, devices, IdP configuration, etc.), with Azure RBAC, using Azure roles and meant to control access to Azure cloud resources (virtual machines, databases, network, storage accounts, websites, etc.). Take the time to read this article if you have doubts: “Azure roles, Microsoft Entra roles, and classic subscription administrator roles”.

⚠️ Do not confuse Entra permissions (like “microsoft.directory/domains/allProperties/allTasks”) with the Entra API permissions (like the famous “Directory.ReadWrite.All” permission of MS Graph API).

There are around 100 Entra built-in roles (as of December 2023), the most famous and powerful being Global Administrator. Customers can create their own Entra custom roles containing exactly the permissions they want (but only some are supported).

My goal in this article is to identify exactly which Entra roles, and hopefully exact Entra permission(s), allow attackers to abuse the federation feature for malicious purposes.

After a quick review of the Entra roles recommended by the documentation to configure this feature, and the list of all available Entra permissions (in particular those under “microsoft.directory/domains/”), I have selected for my tests these roles listed with their relevant permissions. The “[💥privileged]” tag below marks privileged roles according to Microsoft (as of November 2023), thanks to the recent feature “Privileged roles and permissions in Microsoft Entra ID”. Notably, none of these permissions is considered privileged.

Global Administrator [💥privileged]

  • microsoft.directory/domains/allProperties/allTasks
  • microsoft.directory/domains/federationConfiguration/basic/update
  • microsoft.directory/domains/federationConfiguration/create

Security Administrator [💥privileged]

  • microsoft.directory/domains/federation/update
  • microsoft.directory/domains/federationConfiguration/basic/update
  • microsoft.directory/domains/federationConfiguration/create

Hybrid Identity Administrator [💥privileged]: according to its description, this role is meant to manage federation for internal users (among other features), which is the feature I’m focusing on

  • microsoft.directory/domains/federation/update
  • microsoft.directory/domains/federationConfiguration/basic/update
  • microsoft.directory/domains/federationConfiguration/create

External Identity Provider Administrator: according to its description, this role is meant to manage federation for external users, which is not what this is about, but we never know… so I have included it

  • microsoft.directory/domains/federation/update

Domain Name Administrator

  • microsoft.directory/domains/allProperties/allTasks

Partner Tier1 Support [💥privileged]: Microsoft has been saying for months that this role should not be used since it is deprecated, and its mentions have been recently removed from the documentation, but since it is still functioning (as of November 2023) and thus abusable by attackers, I have decided to include it

  • <none>

Partner Tier2 Support [💥privileged]: Microsoft has been saying for months that this role should not be used since it is deprecated, and its mentions have been recently removed from the documentation, but since it is still functioning (as of November 2023) and thus abusable by attackers, I have decided to include it

  • microsoft.directory/domains/allProperties/allTasks

Methodology

I used a single Entra tenant, with several Entra users: one user per role I wanted to test (with the role assigned of course).

I wrote several PowerShell scripts, which clean the environment if needed (to allow several consecutive runs), call the cmdlets corresponding to the API to test, and then check the result. That way I obtained reliable and reproducible test cases.

The scripts are publicly available on GitHub: https://github.com/tenable/entra-id-federation-abuse-research-required-roles

Steps of the killchain

Create and verify domain

Federation needs a custom domain name configured in Entra ID to work. You can list them in the Entra admin center (or Azure Portal):

Domains can either be:

  • “Managed”, by default. No check in the “Federated” column in the screenshot above.
    Users submit their credentials to Entra ID.
  • “Federated”, when federation is enabled on a domain. Check in the “Federated” column.
    Users are redirected to the federated IdP to which they submit their credentials and Entra ID trusts the token it emits.

Administrators can convert a domain between each of these modes.

Now, from an attacker’s perspective, if there is no custom domain available (apart from the default <tenant>.onmicrosoft.com), we have to create one and verify it to prove that we own it. These are two steps, using different API endpoints / PowerShell cmdlets.

Creating a new domain is at the same time more visible, due to the added domain, but also less visible since this new domain will only be used by the attacker and it will not disrupt the existing authentication process for normal users, as hinted by Mandiant:

Note: To not interrupt production and authentication with an existing federated domain (and to remain undetected), an attacker may opt to register a new domain with the tenant.

🟥 Provisioning API: using New-MsolDomain and Confirm-MsolDomain

Attempts were:

✅ allowed for:

  • Global Administrator
  • Partner Tier2 Support

❌ denied for these, with this error message right from the first creation step “Access Denied. You do not have permissions to call this cmdlet”

  • Security Administrator
  • Hybrid Identity Administrator
  • External Identity Provider Administrator
  • Domain Name Administrator
  • Partner Tier1 Support

🟦 Azure AD Graph API: using New-AzureADDomain and Confirm-AzureADDomain

API endpoints: create a domain and verify action

Attempts were:

✅ allowed for:

  • Global Administrator
  • Domain Name Administrator
  • Partner Tier2 Support

❌ denied for these, with this error message right from the first creation step “Insufficient privileges to complete the operation.”

  • Security Administrator
  • Hybrid Identity Administrator
  • External Identity Provider Administrator
  • Partner Tier1 Support

I noticed that contrary to the provisioning API, the Domain Name Administrator role is allowed to create and verify a domain with the MS Graph API.

🟩 MS Graph API: using New-MgDomain and Confirm-MgDomain

API endpoints: create domain and verify domain

Attempts were:

✅ allowed for:

  • Global Administrator
  • Domain Name Administrator
  • Partner Tier2 Support

❌ denied for these, with this error message right from the first creation step “Insufficient privileges to complete the operation.”

  • Security Administrator
  • Hybrid Identity Administrator
  • External Identity Provider Administrator
  • Partner Tier1 Support

So, exactly the same results as with Azure AD Graph just above.

Convert domain to federated mode / add federation configuration

The next step is to convert the target custom domain to Federated mode, either:

  • the custom domain was already present, but configured in the default Managed mode. ⚠️ converting it to Federated mode will cause disruptions to users who normally use this domain for authentication!
  • the attacker was able to create and verify a new domain as described just above

Converting the domain to federated requires providing federation configuration information. Indeed, federation requires some configuration on Entra ID-side, for instance the certificate used by the federated IdP to sign the token which is the authentication proof, and the IssuerUri that uniquely identifies a federation service allowing to identify to which domain the token is linked.

This technique was described by Mandiant:

This can be obtained by converting a managed domain to a federated domain

The threat actor must first compromise an account with permission to modify or create federated realm objects […] Mandiant observed connections to a Microsoft 365 tenant with MSOnline PowerShell followed by the configuration of a new, attacker-controlled domain as federated

And also by Dr. Nestori Syynimaa in “How to create a backdoor to Azure AD — part 1: Identity federation”.

🟥 Provisioning API: using Set-MsolDomainAuthentication or AADInternals’ ConvertTo-AADIntBackdoor

Attempts were:

✅ allowed for:

  • Global Administrator
  • Partner Tier2 Support

❌ denied for these, with this error message “Access Denied. You do not have permissions to call this cmdlet”

  • Security Administrator
  • Hybrid Identity Administrator
  • External Identity Provider Administrator
  • Domain Name Administrator
  • Partner Tier1 Support

🟦 Azure AD Graph API: not supported

I did not find any Azure AD Graph API endpoint, nor AzureAD PowerShell cmdlet, for converting a domain to federated.

🟩 MS Graph API: using New-MgDomainFederationConfiguration

API endpoint: Create internalDomainFederation

Attempts were:

✅ allowed for:

  • Global Administrator
  • Security Administrator
  • External Identity Provider Administrator
  • Domain Name Administrator
  • Partner Tier2 Support

❌ denied for these, with this error message right from the first creation step “Insufficient privileges to complete the operation.”

  • Hybrid Identity Administrator
  • Partner Tier1 Support

Once again, I noticed differences between the roles allowed by the provisioning API and the MS Graph API.

Thanks to this observation, I suggested an update in the official Entra ID doc page.

Add second federation configuration

While looking at the APIs, I noticed that it was possible to List internalDomainFederations, notice the plural, and that it returned a collection (array). So I had the idea of trying to add a second federation configuration to an existing domain!

Unfortunately, it failed with this error “Domain already has Federation Configuration set.” and indeed the doc could have given me a hint: “This API returns only one object in the collection […] collection of one internalDomainFederation object in the response body.”

Change existing federation configuration

Another way for attackers is to change the federation configuration of an existing federated domain to allow crafting tokens with the attacker’s own token-signing certificate. This is similar to a Golden SAML attack but instead of stealing the key, the attacker is inserting theirs, and instead of presenting the forged token to a service, they present it to the IdP.

This technique was described by Mandiant in Remediation and hardening strategies for Microsoft 365 to defend against UNC2452 (2021):

The threat actor must first compromise an account with permission to modify or create federated realm objects.

The main way is to modify the current token-signing certificate, stored in the “signingCertificate” attribute of the federation configuration, which has the disadvantage of temporarily breaking the authentication and thus making it noticeable.

A variant is also possible, where instead of changing the main token-signing certificate, the attacker adds a secondary token-signing certificate thanks to the “nextSigningCertificate” attribute. This variant was described by Mandiant in Remediation and hardening strategies for Microsoft 365 to defend against UNC2452 (2021):

A threat actor could also modify the federation settings for an existing domain by configuring a new, secondary, token-signing certificate. This would allow for an attack (similar to Golden SAML) where the threat actor controls a private key that can digitally sign SAML tokens and is trusted by Azure AD.

This secondary token-signing certificate was meant to prepare a rollover operation when the main one expires. However, both are accepted as token signers even when the first one has not expired yet. Microsoft Security (MSRC) has confirmed to me it was an intended behavior and working as expected. Therefore, I updated the public documentation:

nextSigningCertificate: Fallback token signing certificate that can also be used to sign tokens

This is also the reason why Microsoft recommends in their “Emergency rotation of the AD FS certificates” article to renew twice the token-signing certificate because:

You’re creating two certificates because Azure [Entra ID] holds on to information about the previous certificate. By creating a second one, you’re forcing Azure [Entra ID] to release information about the old certificate and replace it with information about the second one. If you don’t create the second certificate and update Azure [Entra ID] with it, it might be possible for the old token-signing certificate to authenticate users.

🟥 Provisioning API: using Set-MsolDomainFederationSettings

Attempts were:

✅ allowed for:

  • Global Administrator
  • Hybrid Identity Administrator
  • Partner Tier2 Support

❌ denied for these, with this error message right from the first creation step “Insufficient privileges to complete the operation.”

  • Domain Name Administrator
  • External Identity Provider Administrator
  • Security Administrator
  • Partner Tier1 Support

I noticed a difference here, with Set-MsolDomainAuthentication shown above, in that the “Hybrid Identity Administrator” role is now allowed.

🟦 Azure AD Graph API: not supported

I did not find any Azure AD Graph API endpoint, nor AzureAD PowerShell cmdlet, for modifying federation configuration. In the AzureADPreview module, there is the “New-AzureADExternalDomainFederation” cmdlet but it deals with federation for external users, not for internal users (as described at the beginning) which is the one I needed.

🟩 MS Graph API: using Update-MgDomainFederationConfiguration

API endpoint: Update internalDomainFederation

Attempts were:

✅ allowed for:

  • Global Administrator
  • Security Administrator
  • External Identity Provider Administrator
  • Domain Name Administrator
  • Partner Tier2 Support

❌ denied for these, with this error message right from the first creation step “Insufficient privileges to complete the operation.”

  • Hybrid Identity Administrator
  • Partner Tier1 Support

So, exactly the same results as for creating a federated domain with New-MgDomainFederationConfiguration shown above.

Remarks on inconsistency

🔍 I have no clue how Entra roles and permissions are implemented, nor used, by Entra ID but I noticed something strange. I feel like some operations are explicitly allowed to some roles instead of based on the exact permissions they contain. For example, while Security Administrator and Hybrid Identity Administrator contain exactly the same 3 permissions under “microsoft.directory/domains/*”, the former is allowed to Create internalDomainFederation with the Graph API (using New-MgDomainFederationConfiguration) whereas the latter is not.

Similarly, while Domain Name Administrator and Partner Tier2 Support both contain the “microsoft.directory/domains/allProperties/allTasks” permission, the former is forbidden to call Set-MsolDomainAuthentication while the latter is allowed.

🤔 I also noticed that some roles were forbidden to do some of the mentioned operations by the old 🟥 Provisioning API (MSOL) while the newer 🟦 Azure AD Graph and 🟩 MS Graph APIs allow it, and the contrary too.

Full chain

So, in summary, if you remember the goal of this article 😉, what are the roles actually required to perform this attack end-to-end?

If a verified custom domain is not already present, the attacker will need to be assigned either:

  • Global Administrator
  • Domain Name Administrator
  • Partner Tier2 Support

However, if a verified custom domain is already present, the attacker will need to be assigned either:

  • Global Administrator
  • Security Administrator
  • Hybrid Identity Administrator
  • External Identity Provider Administrator
  • Domain Name Administrator
  • Partner Tier2 Support

😨 As you can see, Global Administrator is far from being the only role allowing to compromise Entra ID by abusing the federation feature! In my opinion, the most dangerous roles in these lists are “External Identity Provider Administrator” and “Domain Name Administrator” because they are not identified as 💥privileged by Microsoft, and thus, are subject to less scrutiny and security efforts.

I believe that it comes from the fact that none of the Entra permissions that seem related to domains and federation configuration are identified as privileged by Microsoft. I wish I could have identified the exact Entra permission(s) allowing this, by testing them one by one in an Entra custom role, but unfortunately only a subset of permissions is currently supported in custom roles and none are in this subset.

I contacted MSRC (VULN-113566) suggesting to mark these permissions, “microsoft.directory/domains/allProperties/allTasks” and “microsoft.directory/domains/federation/update”, as privileged but they will not be doing it as they consider their baseline is correct even though some customers may have different interpretations.

You can also notice that an already existing custom domain is useful to attackers since it allows them to skip the domain creation and verification steps, which is stealthier, and makes the attack possible with more roles. However, it causes temporary disruptions for users who normally authenticate via the abused domain, so it is also less stealthy.

Recommendations for defense

The goal of this article was not to make you discover how federation itself can be abused, since great researchers have already done this a year ago, but still, you may wonder how to defend against such an attack.

Microsoft has long recommended to migrate away from federated authentication to managed authentication, however as we saw, even if an organization is not using (anymore) federated authentication, an attacker could still re-enable it.

🤔 First of all, apply the principle of least privilege and be mindful of whom you assign the roles mentioned previously (that was the goal of this article, do you remember? 😅). I hope I have convinced you that Global Administrator is not the only sensitive role.

🔍 Second, you should audit and monitor the federated domains (including their federation configuration(s)) in your Entra ID to detect the potential backdoors (already present, or to be added). Especially if your organization is not using (anymore) federated authentication. One of the available solutions is of course Tenable Identity Exposure which offers Indicators of Exposure dedicated to this subject (“Known Federated Domain Backdoor”, “Federation Signing Certificates Mismatch”, and more to come!). Microsoft has also published a guide describing how to “Monitor changes to federation configuration in your Microsoft Entra ID” but which leaves up to you the analysis of the federation configuration when an event occurs. Changes in federated domains, and the associated federation configurations, are normally rare so any event should be properly investigated.

🆘 Third, in case of a suspected or confirmed attack, it is highly recommended to seek assistance from incident response specialists with expertise on Entra ID to help identify the extent of the attack including the other potential means of persistence of the attacker. You can follow this remediation guide from Microsoft “Emergency rotation of the AD FS certificates”.

Conclusion

We have seen together that several built-in Entra roles can be leveraged by attackers to abuse the federation feature to elevate their privileges and persist in an Entra tenant. Of course, the most famous role, Global Administrator, is one of them, but these can also be used: Security Administrator, Hybrid Identity Administrator, External Identity Provider Administrator, Domain Name Administrator, and Partner Tier2 Support. Microsoft still has not identified all of them as privileged, so be careful when assigning these roles in your organization: assigned users may have more power than you think! 💥

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Clément Notin [Tenable]
Tenable TechBlog

Security researcher, working at Tenable Research https://www.tenable.com/research. Specialized in identity security (Active Directory / Entra ID)