The Skeleton Key is a malware which is stored in memory which allows an attacker to authenticate as any domain user in the network by using a master password. The techniques that this malware was using have been analyzed by Dell Secure Works which did the initially discovery and have been integrated to Mimikatz. This attack requires domain administrator level privileges and access to the domain controller therefore it can be used as an alternative to Kerberos Golden Ticket domain persistence technique.

Windows networks are using two authentication methods.

  1. NTLM
  2. Kerberos

When the Skeleton Key attack is used both authentication methods are being tampered. For example during NTLM authentication the hash of the master password that has being injected inside the LSASS process will not compared with the SAM database but with the Skeleton Key hash which is the same therefore the authentication will succeed. Kerberos encryption will also downgraded to an algorithm that doesn’t support salt (RC4_HMAC_MD5) and the hash retrieved from the active directory will be replaced with the Skeleton Key hash. Therefore the hash of the master password will always validated server side and authentication will be successful for both methods.


Benjamin Delpy implemented the technique that the malware is using inside Mimikatz. Running the ‘skeleton‘ command on the domain controller with elevated privileges (domain administrator) will downgrade the Kerberos encryption to RC4_HMAC_MD5 and will patch the LSASS process with a master password: mimikatz. This password can be used to accessing any host in the domain as any user. Logon activities of domain users will not be affected as their passwords will continue to work as normal.

Mimikatz - Skeleton Key
Mimikatz – Skeleton Key

The password of the domain administrator john is not known however the master password mimikatz can be used to map the admin share.

net use p: \\WIN-PTELU2U07KG\admin$ /user:john mimikatz
Skeleton Key - Map a DC Share
Skeleton Key – Map a DC Share

The share on the domain controller will be accessible without the need to crack the password hash of user john.

Skeleton Key - Share
Skeleton Key – Domain Controller Share Accessible


Empire has a module which can automate the activity by executing Mimikatz completely in memory and avoiding dropping the binary to the domain controller.

usemodule persistence/misc/skeleton_key
Empire - Skeleton Key Module
Empire – Skeleton Key Module

Running the ‘execute’ command will trigger the Skeleton Key attack.

Empire - Skeleton Key Execution
Empire – Skeleton Key Execution

When the skeleton key is implanted on the domain controller the Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) can be used to authenticate with a target host as any valid domain user with the master password of mimikatz.

rdesktop -u test -p mimikatz -d pentestlab
Skeleton Key - Remote Desktop
Skeleton Key – Remote Desktop

Verification that the authentication was successful can be done by checking the logon screen of the target host.

Skeleton Key - RDS Connection
Skeleton Key – RDS Connection


The Skeleton Key is a post domain compromise technique which can be used by the red teams to access hosts and network resources without the need to crack any passwords of domain users and without raising any alerts in the SIEM. It should be noted that upon reboot of the domain controller the master password will not work since is in-memory technique and the attack needs to be re-executed.


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