Security Descriptor

The security descriptor is the basis for specifying the security that is associated with an object. Every object that has a security descriptor linked to it is called a securable object. Securable objects can be shared between different users, and every user can have different authorization settings. Examples of securable objects are a file, a folder, a file system share, a printer, a registry key, and an Active Directory object. The following diagram shows the abstract representation of the security descriptor data structure.

The security descriptor is a collection of four main elements, as shown in the following diagram: the owner, the group, the discretionary access control list (DACL), and the system access control list (SACL).

Abstract representation of security descriptor

Figure 4: Abstract representation of security descriptor

The Owner is a SID that specifies the owner of the resource. The Group SID specifies the group associated with the resource. The Group SID field is not evaluated by Windows components; it exists for Portable Operating System Interface for UNIX (POSIX) compatibility. The DACL field specifies the discretionary access control list, and the SACL field specifies the system access control list.

When associated with a resource, the security descriptor is intended to be opaque. The resource manager (RM) is never required to examine the contents of the security descriptor. However, the security descriptor fields can be used by the RM for other purposes. For example, in a billing scenario, the file system can implement a storage quota system by using the owner field in the security descriptor to determine the resources consumed by a specific user. Security descriptor algorithms are defined in [MS-DTYP] section 2.5.3.

Discretionary access control lists (DACLs, but often shortened to ACLs) form the primary means by which authorization is determined. An ACL is conceptually a list of <account, access-rights> pairs, although they are significantly richer than that.

Each pair in the ACL is termed an access control entry (ACE). Each ACE has additional modifiers that are primarily for use during inheritance. There are also several different kinds of ACEs for representing both access to a single object (such as a file) and access to an object with multiple properties (such as an object in Active Directory).

The ACE contains the SID of the account to which the ACE pertains. The SID can be for a user or for a group.

Windows supports both positive ACEs, which grant or allow access rights to a particular account, and negative ACEs, which deny access rights to a particular account. This allows a resource owner to specify, for example, grant read access to group Y, except for user Z.

DACLs can be configured at the discretion of any account that possesses the appropriate permissions to modify the configuration, including Take Ownership, Change Permissions, or Full Control permissions. For a description of the SECURITY_DESCRIPTOR structure, see [MS-DTYP] section 2.4.6.

When access is requested to an Active Directory object, the Local Security Authority (LSA) compares the access token of the account that is requesting access to the object to the DACL. The security protocols check the object's DACL, searching for ACEs that apply to the user and group SIDs that are referenced in the user's access token. The security protocols then step through the DACL until they find any ACEs that allow or deny access to the user or to one of the user's groups. The protocols do this by first examining ACEs that have been explicitly assigned to the object and then examining the ACEs that have been inherited by the object. Inherited ACEs are placed in the order in which they are inherited. ACEs inherited from the child object's parent come first, then ACEs inherited from the grandparent, and so on up the tree of objects. The following diagram shows the evaluation process for an access token and a DACL when a request is evaluated.

Evaluation process for access tokens against a DACL

Figure 5: Evaluation process for access tokens against a DACL

If an explicit deny is found, access is denied. Explicit deny ACEs are always applied, even if conflicting allow ACEs exist. Explicit allow ACEs are examined, as are inherited deny and allow ACEs. The ACEs that apply to the user are accumulated. Inherited deny ACEs overrule inherited allow ACEs but are overruled themselves by explicit allow permissions. If none of the user SIDs or group SIDs in the access token match the DACL, the user is denied access implicitly.

In Windows, a security principal's level of access to files and folders is determined by NTFS file system and share permissions. These permissions are discretionary: that is, anyone with ownership of a file or folder, Change permissions, or Full Control permissions can assign access control at their discretion. When Windows is first installed, Windows assigns default permission structures to operating system files and folders, but a user might be required to alter these permissions to meet specific security requirements.

When a user attempts to access a file or folder on an NTFS file system partition, the user's access token is compared with the DACL of the file or folder. If no ACEs correspond to a SID in the user's access token, the user is implicitly denied access to the resource. If ACEs correspond to the user's access token, the ACEs are applied in the following order:

  1. Explicit deny

  2. Explicit allow

  3. Inherited deny

  4. Inherited allow

ACEs that apply to the user are cumulative, which means that the user receives the sum of the ACEs that apply to his or her user account and to the groups of which the user is a member. For example, if an ACL contains two allow ACEs that apply to the user, one for read access and the other for write access, the user receives read/write access.

A system access control list (SACL) enables administrators to log attempts to access a secured object. Like a DACL, a SACL is a list of ACEs. Each ACE specifies the types of access attempts made by a specified account, which cause the system to generate a record in the security event log. An ACE in an SACL can generate audit records when an access attempt fails, when it succeeds, or both. For more details about the security descriptor, see [MS-DTYP] section 2.4.6.

The security descriptor of a file system object is stored in the NTFS file system, whereas the security descriptor of an Active Directory object is stored in the object's nTSecurityDescriptor attribute (see [MS-ADA3] section 2.37). For more details, see [MS-DTYP] section

The SECURITY_DESCRIPTOR structure ([MS-DTYP] section 2.4.6) is a compact binary representation of the security associated with an object in a directory, or on a file system, or in other stores. However, it is not convenient for use in tools that operate primarily on text strings. Therefore, a text-based form of the security descriptor is available for situations when a security descriptor is carried by a text method. This format is the Security Descriptor Description Language (SDDL). For more information about this format, see [MS-DTYP] section 2.5.1.