NTFS permissions control: Who will watch the watcher?

Network security tip: Windows networking security expert Wes Noonan offers his thoughts on how to manage the rights of junior administrators in Windows Server 2003.

A SearchWindowsSecurity.com reader recently asked: How can we prevent junior administrators from granting themselves permissions to certain restricted documents?

The classic "who will watch the watcher" question. There is not necessarily a simple answer here. I would first state that you have to be mindful of who you are making administrators in a Windows network. By definition, these are the most powerful users of a system. If you can't trust them with the data, then I really have to question why they are administrators in the first place. Additionally, you really have to be careful trying to address non-technical problems with technical solutions. Again, if you can't trust your administrators, they shouldn't be administrators.

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Controlling your users
Network security FAQ: Managing user rights

Managing user rights in Group Policy

With that said, you have a few options. First, you have to realize that if you make someone an administrator of a server, you really can't stop them from having the ability to grant themselves rights to certain restricted documents. So if you have an HR server for example, and you want to limit the scope of rights, perhaps junior administrators should not be made administrators of that server, and only the most senior (or *the* senior) administrators have rights. Assuming that the junior administrators are not actual administrators of the server, it's relatively easy to keep them out of the files, and prevent them from attempting to given themselves rights. For example, you can simply not grant the Full Control permission.

Proactive prevention

A better option that won't prevent someone from making the change, but will inform you if a change is made, is to implement auditing on the directories and files in question. In conjunction with third party security management tools such as NetIQ Security Manager, Tripwire or McAfee Host Intrusion Prevention this will allow you to proactively monitor and generate alerts of someone attempts to change the permissions on the files in question. While this won't prevent such changes, if the alerts are configured to page your security administrators, it will certainly limit the impact, in addition to letting you know exactly who made the changes (and thus needs to be dismissed).

This was first published in February 2007

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