SMB “Access is denied” Caused by Anti-NTLM Relay Protection

Clément Notin [Tenable]
Tenable TechBlog
Published in
7 min readJan 11, 2023

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Summary

We investigated a situation where an SMB client could not connect to an SMB server. The SMB server returned an “Access Denied” during the NTLM authentication, even though the credentials were correct and there were no restrictions on both the server-side share and client-side (notably UNC Hardened Access). The only unusual thing is that the SMB server was accessed through a NAT mapping (DNAT to be precise): the client was connecting to an IP which was not the real server’s IP. This can happen in some VPN network setups. Also, we have seen this situation at some organizations (even without a VPN in the equation) where they request to connect to machines, such as domain controllers, through a unique Virtual IP (VIP) which allows load-balancing.

💡 As cybersecurity experts, this immediately made us think that this setup was in fact similar to an NTLM relay (aka SMB relay) attack, even though the intent was not malicious. And perhaps there could be a security hardening mechanism on the server side blocking this.

And indeed we were correct: the server had the “Microsoft network server: Server SPN target name validation level” policy (i.e. SmbServerNameHardeningLevel registry key) enabled which blocked this scenario. Here is the policy description from Microsoft:

This policy setting controls the level of validation that a server with shared folders or printers performs on the service principal name (SPN) that is provided by the client device when the client device establishes a session by using the Server Message Block (SMB) protocol. The level of validation can help prevent a class of attacks against SMB services (referred to as SMB relay attacks). This setting affects both SMB1 and SMB2.

➡️ This situation could also occur in your regular SMB environments, so follow along to see how to troubleshoot this, how it is configured, how it works and what we suggest to do in this case.

Observation

Here’s an example in this screenshot (sorry for the French UI machine on the right!):

The SMB client, on the left (IP 10.10.10.20), is trying to connect to the SMB server on the right (IP 10.0.0.11 and FQDN dcfr.lab.lan), except it’s through the IP of a TCP relay (created with socat on Linux), at the bottom (IP 10.0.0.100) which simulates the NAT situation seen initially in our investigation.

So, the SMB server sees an incoming authentication, where the SMB client has declared (in the “Target Name” attribute on the left) it is expecting to authenticate to the IP of the TCP relay (10.0.0.100), which is different than the real server’s IP (10.0.0.11).

💥 Therefore, it detects the mismatch considered as an attack attempt, and denies the authentication right away, as we can see with the “Access is denied” error message and “STATUS_ACCESS_DENIED” in the SMB network capture.

With the same setup and server configuration, if the client connects directly to the server’s IP (10.0.0.11) without the relay, all is matching and it works:

How to troubleshoot?

551 “SMB Session Authentication Failure” event

The first hint in identifying this issue is that it generates a 551 “SMB Session Authentication Failure” event in the SMBServer event log (as seen in the first screenshot above).

5168 “SPN check for SMB/SMB2 failed” event

There is also a 5168 Security event “SPN check for SMB/SMB2 failed”, where we clearly see the IP address that was sent (the SPN, in red) Vs. what was expected (the semicolon-separated list, in green), sorry again for the French UI:

Note that for the 5168 event to be generated, the “Audit File Share” audit policy must be enabled for Failure at least. You can check with:

auditpol.exe /get /SubCategory:"Detailed File Share"

We can also have the same 5168 event generated “because of NTLMv1 or LM protocols usage” since they don’t carry the required SPN attribute for the server to do its check.

Policy

✅ We can also check if the “Microsoft network server: Server SPN target name validation level” policy is enabled (for those following in French: “Serveur réseau Microsoft: niveau de validation du nom de la cible de serveur SPN”).

The corresponding registry key is SmbServerNameHardeningLevel found in “HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\System\CurrentControlSet\Services\LanManServer\Parameters”

We can query it with:

reg query HKLM\System\CurrentControlSet\Services\LanManServer\Parameters\ /v SmbServerNameHardeningLevel

Or using this dedicated PowerShell cmdlet:

Get-SmbServerConfiguration | fl *hard*

See below for the explanation of the possible values.

How to configure the policy?

⚙️ The “Microsoft network server: Server SPN target name validation level” policy has three possible values:

  • 0[default] = “Off”
    “The SPN is not required or validated by the SMB server from a SMB client.”
  • 1 = “Accept if provided by client”
    “The SMB server will accept and validate the SPN provided by the SMB client and allow a session to be established if it matches the SMB server’s list of SPN’s for itself. If the SPN does NOT match, the session request for that SMB client will be denied.”
  • 2 = “Required from client”
    “The SMB client MUST send a SPN name in session setup, and the SPN name provided MUST match the SMB server that is being requested to establish a connection. If no SPN is provided by the client, or the SPN provided does not match, the session is denied.”

In our testing, we observed access denied errors in such a relay/NAT situation, with either the values of 1 or 2, because the Windows SMB client knows to provide the expected SPN. However, setting the registry key to 0 disables the protection and indeed it made the connection possible even through the relay.

How does this protection work?

Protocol support

Perhaps you have noticed something strange: here we can see an “SPN” in the context of an NTLM authentication… Whereas usually SPN only appears within the context of Kerberos! 🤔

The NTLM specification, [MS-NLMP] clearly uses this term:

MsvAvTargetName: The SPN of the target server.

Also, as described in the 5168 event:

It often happens because of NTLMv1 or LM protocols usage from client side when “Microsoft Network Server: Server SPN target name validation level” group policy set to “Require from client” on server side. SPN only sent to server when NTLMv2 or Kerberos protocols are used, and after that SPN can be validated.

Indeed, NTLMv1 and LM protocols don’t have the required fields to carry the SPN expected and provided by the client.

Of course, this security mechanism works with Kerberos since service tickets embed an SPN.

Protection against NTLM relaying

📄 NTLM relay attacks, sometimes called SMB relay attacks, have been well-known for many years. I recommend these great articles if you want to learn more: https://en.hackndo.com/ntlm-relay/ and https://www.thehacker.recipes/ad/movement/ntlm/relay

During such an attack, the client authenticates to the attacker’s machine, which relays it to another machine (like in a Man-in-the-Middle attack), which is the attacker’s real target. But thanks to this additional SPN attribute, the client declares the server it’s expecting to authenticate to, which would be the attacker’s IP, and when the target server receives the relayed authentication it can detect that there’s a mismatch (the declared IP isn’t its own) and denies the authentication. Of course, it works with hostnames and FQDNs instead of IPs.

This protection is also explained in this section of the same article: https://en.hackndo.com/ntlm-relay/#service-binding

Offensive security perspective

An SMB client can be modified to send a correct target name, for example, using the impacket library as described in this article. But this doesn’t make this protection useless in the context of an NTLM relay attack, as the attacker cannot modify the SMB client used by the victim.

🔒 Moreover, this SPN attribute cannot be removed nor modified during an NTLM relay attack because it belongs to the attributes list (AV_PAIR), which is protected by the MIC as described in many articles, including this recent one from Synacktiv about the NTLM EPA protection.

What do we recommend?

🛡️ Of course, as cybersecurity experts, we do not recommend to remove this hardening feature that is usually enabled for good reason! Many cybersecurity agencies encourage evaluating this policy and enabling it where possible, as described in many security standards that Tenable products allow to audit.

As described previously, we could also create our own SMB client to send a crafted, but correct, SPN value, but obviously this solution is not possible in most cases…

  1. The easiest solution, when possible, is to connect to the server directly, using its real IP (i.e., without NAT).
  2. Otherwise, there is a registry key which allows for declaring of a list of alternative names and IPs allowed through this mechanism. It is the SrvAllowedServerNames key, which must be created in “HKLM\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Services\LanmanServer\Parameters” with type REG_MULTI_SZ. This is described in this Microsoft support article “Description of the update that implements Extended Protection for Authentication in the Server service” and in this answer on ServerFault.
    We confirm it works (with both values enabling the policy):

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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)