Windows Credential Guard & Mimikatz

Here at NVISO, we are proud to have contributed to the new SANS course “SEC599: Defeating Advanced Adversaries – Implementing Kill Chain Defenses”.

This six-day training focuses on implementing effective security controls to prevent, detect and respond to cyber attacks.

One of the defenses covered in SEC599 is Credential Guard. Obtaining and using credentials and hashes from memory (for example with Mimikatz) is still a decisive tool in the arsenal of attackers, one that is not easy to defend against.
With Windows 10 and Windows Server 2016, Microsoft introduced a feature to mitigate attacks to obtain credentials and hashes: Credential Guard. With Credential Guard, secrets are stored in a hardened and isolated section of your computer, inaccessible from the normal operating system.

Credential Guard relies on a new technology introduced with Windows 10 and Windows Server 2016: Virtual Secure Mode (VSM). VSM is based on the virtualization features of modern CPUs to provide a separate memory space where secrets can be stored. This separate memory space is protected (via hardware) from read and write attempts from processes in the normal operating system’s memory space.

When Credential Guard is enabled, the Local Security Authority Subsystem Service (LSASS) consists of 2 processes: the normal LSA process and the isolated LSA process (which runs in VSM).

Credential Guard

SANS SEC599 day 4: Credential Guard

Tools that recover secrets from LSA, like Mimikatz, are not able to access the isolated LSA process. They cannot extract passwords or inject hashes for pass-the-hash attacks, for example. Hence, Credential Guard is an effective tool to protect credentials stored on Windows machines.

Despite Credential Guard, users with administrative access can still find ways to steal credentials entered on Windows machines. This can be done, for example, with Mimikatz own Security Support Provider. SSPs are packages that participate in the authentication of users: for example, installed SSPs will be called when a user logs on, and will receive the credentials of said user. Windows comes with several SSPs , and custom SSPs can be installed (of course, this requires administrative permissions).

Mimikatz memssp command (available since September 2014) installs a custom SSP in memory (so no DLL is written to disk), that will log all credentials it receives in a text file.

To achieve this, Mimikatz needs to be executed with administrative rights on the target machine and the debug privilege needs to be enabled to allow the LSA processes to be opened and patched:


Next, Mimikatz’s SSP is injected with the misc::memssp command:


Now the SSP is installed, Mimikatz can be closed. This SSP will remain in memory as long as Windows is not rebooted.

After a user has performed a log on, Mimikatz’s SSP log C:\Windows\System32\mimilsa.og file can be examined to retrieve the credentials processed by Mimikatz’s SSP:



Mimikatz can not extract credentials protected by Credential Guard, but it can intercept credentials entered in a Windows machine at log on time, for example. Although Credential Guard will protect credentials in isolated memory, credentials still need to be provided to a Windows machine (like for an interactive logon).

When these credentials are typed, they can still be intercepted and stolen, e.g. with a key logger or with with a custom SSP, as illustrated here. This is however only one of the steps in the attack chain, as this requires administrative rights, it is crucial to restrict and monitor administrative access to your Windows machines.

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