1.2 Restricting Privileges on Windows

1.2.1 Problem

Your Windows program runs with elevated privileges, such as Administrator or Local System, but it does not require all the privileges granted to the user account under which it's running. Your program never needs to perform certain actions that may be dangerous if users with elevated privileges run it and an attacker manages to compromise the program.

1.2.2 Solution

When a user logs into the system or the service control manager starts a service, a token is created that contains information about the user logging in or the user under which the service is running. The token contains a list of all of the groups to which the user belongs (the user and each group in the list is represented by a Security ID or SID), as well as a set of privileges that any thread running with the token has. The set of privileges is initialized from the privileges assigned by the system administrator to the user and the groups to which the user belongs.

Beginning with Windows 2000, it is possible to create a restricted token and force threads to run using that token. Once a restricted token has been applied to a running thread, any restrictions imposed by the restricted token cannot be lifted; however, it is possible to revert the thread back to its original unrestricted token. With restricted tokens, it's possible to remove privileges, restrict the SIDs that are used in access checking, and deny SIDs access. The use of restricted tokens is more useful when combined with the CreateProcessAsUser( ) API to create a new process with a restricted token that cannot be reverted to a more permissive token.

Beginning with Windows .NET Server 2003, it is possible to permanently remove privileges from a process's token. Once the privileges have been removed, they cannot be added back. Any new processes created by a process running with a modified token will inherit the modified token; therefore, the same restrictions imposed upon the parent process are also imposed upon the child process. Note that modifying a token is quite different from creating a restricted token. In particular, only privileges can be removed; SIDs can be neither restricted nor denied.

1.2.3 Discussion

Tokens contain a list of SIDs, composed of the user's SID and one SID for each group of which the user is a member. SIDs are assigned by the system when users and groups are created. In addition to the SIDs, tokens also contain a list of restricted SIDs. When access checks are performed and the token contains a list of restricted SIDs, the intersection of the two lists of SIDs contained in the token is used to perform the access check. Finally, tokens also contain a list of privileges. Privileges define specific access rights. For example, for a process to use the Win32 debugging API, the process's token must contain the SeDebugPrivilege privilege.

The primary list of SIDs contained in a token cannot be modified. The token is created for a particular user, and the token must always contain the user's SID along with the SIDs for each group of which the user is a member. However, each SID in the primary list can be marked with a "deny" attribute, which causes access to be denied when an access control list (ACL) contains a SID that is marked as "deny" in the active token. Creating restricted tokens

Using the CreateRestrictedToken( ) API, a restricted token can be created from an existing token. The resulting token can then be used to create a new process or to set an impersonation token for a thread. In the former case, the restricted token becomes the newly created process's primary token; in the latter case, the thread can revert back to its primary token, effectively making the restrictions imposed by the restricted token useful for little more than helping to prevent accidents.

CreateRestrictedToken( ) requires a large number of arguments, and it may seem an intimidating function to use, but with some explanation and examples, it's not actually all that difficult. The function has the following signature:

BOOL CreateRestrictedToken(HANDLE ExistingTokenHandle, DWORD Flags,
           DWORD DisableSidCount, PSID_AND_ATTRIBUTES SidsToDisable,
           DWORD DeletePrivilegeCount, PLUID_AND_ATTRIBUTES PrivilegesToDelete,
           DWORD RestrictedSidCount, PSID_AND_ATTRIBUTES SidsToRestrict,
           PHANDLE NewTokenHandle);

These functions have the following arguments:


Handle to an existing token. An existing token handle can be obtained via a call to either OpenProcessToken( ) or OpenThreadToken( ). The token may be either a primary or a restricted token. In the latter case, the token may be obtained from an earlier call to CreateRestrictedToken( ). The existing token handle must have been opened or created with TOKEN_DUPLICATE access.


May be specified as 0 or as a combination of DISABLE_MAX_PRIVILEGE or SANDBOX_INERT. If DISABLE_MAX_PRIVILEGE is used, all privileges in the new token are disabled, and the two arguments DeletePrivilegeCount and PrivilegesToDelete are ignored. The SANDBOX_INERT has no special meaning other than it is stored in the token, and can be later queried using GetTokenInformation( ).


Number of elements in the list SidsToDisable. May be specified as 0 if there are no SIDs to be disabled. Disabling a SID is the same as enabling the SIDs "deny" attribute.


List of SIDs for which the "deny" attribute is to be enabled. May be specified as NULL if no SIDs are to have the "deny" attribute enabled. See below for information on the SID_AND_ATTRIBUTES structure.


Number of elements in the list PrivilegesToDelete. May be specified as 0 if there are no privileges to be deleted.


List of privileges to be deleted from the token. May be specified as NULL if no privileges are to be deleted. See below for information on the LUID_AND_ATTRIBUTES structure.


Number of elements in the list SidsToRestrict. May be specified as 0 if there are no restricted SIDs to be added.


List of SIDs to restrict. If the existing token is a restricted token that already has restricted SIDs, the resulting token will have a list of restricted SIDs that is the intersection of the existing token's list and this list. May be specified as NULL if no restricted SIDs are to be added to the new token.


Pointer to a HANDLE that will receive the handle to the newly created token.

The function OpenProcessToken( ) will obtain a handle to the process's primary token, while OpenThreadToken( ) will obtain a handle to the calling thread's impersonation token. Both functions have a similar signature, though their arguments are treated slightly differently:

BOOL OpenProcessToken(HANDLE hProcess, DWORD dwDesiredAccess, PHANDLE phToken);
BOOL OpenThreadToken(HANDLE hThread, DWORD dwDesiredAccess, BOOL bOpenAsSelf,
                     PHANDLE phToken);

This function has the following arguments:


Handle to the current process, which is normally obtained via a call to GetCurrentProcess( ).


Handle to the current thread, which is normally obtained via a call to GetCurrentThread( ).


Bit mask of the types of access desired for the returned token handle. For creating restricted tokens, this must always include TOKEN_DUPLICATE. If the restricted token being created will be used as a primary token for a new process, you must include TOKEN_ASSIGN_PRIMARY; otherwise, if the restricted token that will be created will be used as an impersonation token for the thread, you must include TOKEN_IMPERSONATE.


Boolean flag that determines how the access check for retrieving the thread's token is performed. If specified as FALSE, the access check uses the calling thread's permissions. If specified as TRUE, the access check uses the calling process's permissions.


Pointer to a HANDLE that will receive the handle to the process's primary token or the thread's impersonation token, depending on whether you're calling OpenProcessToken( ) or OpenThreadToken( ).

Creating a new process with a restricted token is done by calling CreateProcessAsUser( ), which works just as CreateProcess( ) does (see Recipe 1.8) except that it requires a token to be used as the new process's primary token. Normally, CreateProcessAsUser( ) requires that the active token have the SeAssignPrimaryTokenPrivilege privilege, but if a restricted token is used, that privilege is not required. The following pseudo-code demonstrates the steps required to create a new process with a restricted primary token:

HANDLE hProcessToken, hRestrictedToken;
/* First get a handle to the current process's primary token */
OpenProcessToken(GetCurrentProcess(  ), TOKEN_DUPLICATE | TOKEN_ASSIGN_PRIMARY,
/* Create a restricted token with all privileges removed */
CreateRestrictedToken(hProcessToken, DISABLE_MAX_PRIVILEGE, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0,
/* Create a new process using the restricted token */
CreateProcessAsUser(hRestrictedToken, ...);
/* Cleanup */

Setting a thread's impersonation token requires a bit more work. Unless the calling thread is impersonating, calling OpenThreadToken( ) will result in an error because the thread does not have an impersonation token and thus is using the process's primary token. Likewise, calling SetThreadToken( ) unless impersonating will also fail because a thread cannot have an impersonation token if it's not impersonating.

If you want to restrict a thread's access rights temporarily, the easiest solution to the problem is to force the thread to impersonate itself. When impersonation begins, the thread is assigned an impersonation token, which can then be obtained via OpenThreadToken( ). A restricted token can be created from the impersonation token, and the thread's impersonation token can then be replaced with the new restricted token by calling SetThreadToken( ).

The following pseudo-code demonstrates the steps required to replace a thread's impersonation token with a restricted one:

HANDLE hRestrictedToken, hThread, hThreadToken;
/* First begin impersonation */
/* Get a handle to the current thread's impersonation token */
hThread = GetCurrentThread(  );
OpenThreadToken(hThread, TOKEN_DUPLICATE | TOKEN_IMPERSONATE, TRUE, &hThreadToken);
/* Create a restricted token with all privileges removed */
CreateRestrictedToken(hThreadToken, DISABLE_MAX_PRIVILEGE, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0,
/* Set the thread's impersonation token to the new restricted token */
SetThreadToken(&hThread, hRestrictedToken);
/* ... perform work here */
/* Revert the thread's impersonation token back to its original */
SetThreadToken(&hThread, 0);
/* Stop impersonating */
RevertToSelf(  );
/* Cleanup */
CloseHandle(hThreadToken); Modifying a process's primary token

Beginning with Windows .NET Server 2003, support for a new flag has been added to the function AdjustTokenPrivileges( ); it allows a privilege to be removed from a token, rather than simply disabled. Once the privilege has been removed, it cannot be added back to the token. In older versions of Windows, privileges could only be enabled or disabled using AdjustTokenPrivileges( ), and there was no way to remove privileges from a token without duplicating it. There is no way to substitute another token for a process's primary token?the best you can do in older versions of Windows is to use restricted impersonation tokens.

BOOL AdjustTokenPrivileges(HANDLE TokenHandle, BOOL DisableAllPrivileges,
                           PTOKEN_PRIVILEGES NewState, DWORD BufferLength,
                           PTOKEN_PRIVILEGES PreviousState, PDWORD ReturnLength);

This function has the following arguments:


Handle to the token that is to have its privileges adjusted. The handle must have been opened with TOKEN_ADJUST_PRIVILEGES access; in addition, if PreviousState is to be filled in, it must have TOKEN_QUERY access.


Boolean argument that specifies whether all privileges held by the token are to be disabled. If specified as TRUE, all privileges are disabled, and the NewState argument is ignored. If specified as FALSE, privileges are adjusted according to the information in the NewState argument.


List of privileges that are to be adjusted, along with the adjustment that is to be made for each. Privileges can be enabled, disabled, and removed. The TOKEN_PRIVILEGES structure contains two fields: PrivilegeCount and Privileges. PrivilegeCount is simply a DWORD that indicates how many elements are in the array that is the Privileges field. The Privileges field is an array of LUID_AND_ATTRIBUTES structures, for which the Attributes field of each element indicates how the privilege is to be adjusted. A value of 0 disables the privilege, SE_PRIVILEGE_ENABLED enables it, and SE_PRIVILEGE_REMOVED removes the privilege. See Section later in this section for more information regarding these structures.


Length in bytes of the PreviousState buffer. May be 0 if PreviousState is NULL.


Buffer into which the state of the token's privileges prior to adjustment is stored. It may be specified as NULL if the information is not required. If the buffer is not specified as NULL, the token must have been opened with TOKEN_QUERY access.


Pointer to an integer into which the number of bytes written into the PreviousState buffer will be placed. May be specified as NULL if PreviousState is also NULL.

The following example code demonstrates how AdjustTokenPrivileges( ) can be used to remove backup and restore privileges from a token:

#include <windows.h>

BOOL RemoveBackupAndRestorePrivileges(VOID) {
  BOOL              bResult;
  HANDLE            hProcess, hProcessToken;
  /* Allocate a TOKEN_PRIVILEGES buffer to hold the privilege change information.
   * Two privileges will be adjusted, so make sure there is room for two
   * LUID_AND_ATTRIBUTES elements in the Privileges field of TOKEN_PRIVILEGES.
                                           (sizeof(LUID_AND_ATTRIBUTES) * 2));
  if (!pNewState) return FALSE;
  /* Add the two privileges that will be removed to the allocated buffer */
  pNewState->PrivilegeCount = 2;
  if (!LookupPrivilegeValue(0, SE_BACKUP_NAME, &pNewState->Privileges[0].Luid) ||
      !LookupPrivilegeValue(0, SE_RESTORE_NAME, &pNewState->Privileges[1].Luid)) {
    return FALSE;
  pNewState->Privileges[0].Attributes = SE_PRIVILEGE_REMOVED;
  pNewState->Privileges[1].Attributes = SE_PRIVILEGE_REMOVED;
  /* Get a handle to the process's primary token.  Request TOKEN_ADJUST_PRIVILEGES
   * access so that we can adjust the privileges.  No other privileges are req'd
   * since we'll be removing the privileges and thus do not care about the previous
   * state.  TOKEN_QUERY access would be required in order to retrieve the previous
   * state information.
  hProcess = GetCurrentProcess(  );
  if (!OpenProcessToken(hProcess, TOKEN_ADJUST_PRIVILEGES, &hProcessToken)) {
    return FALSE;
  /* Adjust the privileges, specifying FALSE for DisableAllPrivileges so that the
   * NewState argument will be used instead.  Don't request information regarding
   * the token's previous state by specifying 0 for the last three arguments.
  bResult = AdjustTokenPrivileges(hProcessToken, FALSE, pNewState, 0, 0, 0);
  /* Cleanup and return the success or failure of the adjustment */
  return bResult;
} Working with SID_AND_ATTRIBUTES structures

A SID_AND_ATTRIBUTES structure contains two fields: Sid and Attributes. The Sid field is of type PSID, which is a variable-sized object that should never be directly manipulated by application-level code. The meaning of the Attributes field varies depending on the use of the structure. When a SID_AND_ATTRIBUTES structure is being used for disabling SIDs (enabling the "deny" attribute), the Attributes field is ignored. When a SID_AND_ATTRIBUTES structure is being used for restricting SIDs, the Attributes field should always be set to 0. In both cases, it's best to set the Attributes field to 0.

Initializing the Sid field of a SID_AND_ATTRIBUTES structure can be done in a number of ways, but perhaps one of the most useful ways is to use LookupAccountName( ) to obtain the SID for a specific user or group name. The following code demonstrates how to look up the SID for a name:

#include <windows.h>

PSID SpcLookupSidByName(LPCTSTR lpAccountName, PSID_NAME_USE peUse) {
  PSID         pSid;
  DWORD        cbSid, cchReferencedDomainName;
  LPTSTR       ReferencedDomainName;
  cbSid = cchReferencedDomainName = 0;
  if (!LookupAccountName(0, lpAccountName, 0, &cbSid, 0, &cchReferencedDomainName,
                        &eUse)) return 0;
  if (!(pSid = LocalAlloc(LMEM_FIXED, cbSid))) return 0;
  ReferencedDomainName = LocalAlloc(LMEM_FIXED,
                                    (cchReferencedDomainName + 1) * sizeof(TCHAR));
  if (!ReferencedDomainName) {
    return 0;
  if (!LookupAccountName(0, lpAccountName, pSid, &cbSid, ReferencedDomainName,
                        &cchReferencedDomainName, &eUse)) {
    return 0;
  if (peUse) *peUse = eUse;
  return 0;

If the requested account name is found, a PSID object allocated via LocalAlloc( ) is returned; otherwise, NULL is returned. If the second argument is specified as non-NULL, it will contain the type of SID that was found. Because Windows uses SIDs for many different things other than simply users and groups, the type could be one of many possibilities. If you're looking for a user, the type should be SidTypeUser. If you're looking for a group, the type should be SidTypeGroup. Other possibilities include SidTypeDomain, SidTypeAlias, SidTypeWellKnownGroup, SidTypeDeletedAccount, SidTypeInvalid, SidTypeUnknown, and SidTypeComputer. Working with LUID_AND_ATTRIBUTES structures

An LUID_AND_ATTRIBUTES structure contains two fields: Luid and Attributes. The Luid field is of type LUID, which is an object that should never be directly manipulated by application-level code. The meaning of the Attributes field varies depending on the use of the structure. When an LUID_AND_ATTRIBUTES structure is being used for deleting privileges from a restricted token, the Attributes field is ignored and should be set to 0. When an LUID_AND_ATTRIBUTES structure is being used for adjusting privileges in a token, the Attributes field should be set to SE_PRIVILEGE_ENABLED to enable the privilege, SE_PRIVILEGE_REMOVED to remove the privilege, or 0 to disable the privilege. The SE_PRIVILEGE_REMOVED attribute is not valid on Windows NT, Windows 2000, or Windows XP; it is a newly supported flag in Windows .NET Server 2003.

Initializing the Luid field of an LUID_AND_ATTRIBUTES structure is typically done using LookupPrivilegeValue( ), which has the following signature:

BOOL LookupPrivilegeValue(LPCTSTR lpSystemName, LPCTSTR lpName, PLUID lpLuid);

This function has the following arguments:


Name of the computer on which the privilege value's name is looked up. This is normally specified as NULL, which indicates that only the local system should be searched.


Name of the privilege to look up. The Windows platform SDK header file winnt.h defines a sizable number of privilege names as macros that expand to literal strings suitable for use here. Each of these macros begins with SE_, which is followed by the name of the privilege. For example, the SeBackupPrivilege privilege has a corresponding macro named SE_BACKUP_NAME.


Pointer to a caller-allocated LUID object that will receive the LUID information if the lookup is successful. LUID objects are a fixed size, so they may be allocated either dynamically or on the stack.

1.2.4 See Also

Recipe 1.8