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I have a windows application with a configuration file that contains some database passwords. I'd like to encrypt this data in such a way that my application can decrypt the data, but that the administrator of my application (ops team who will need to start/stop the service etc) cannot. Is this possible?

  • does the admin have access to the database? – schroeder Mar 6 '15 at 21:55
  • @schroeder No, ideally only the application has access. I don't know if this is possible (hence the question :) ) – ConditionRacer Mar 6 '15 at 21:57
  • I mean: if the admin is a member of the Ops team, do they also administer the database servers? – schroeder Mar 6 '15 at 21:59
  • No, for the purpose of this question, lets assume this person's only role is to start and stop the application. – ConditionRacer Mar 6 '15 at 22:06
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This is possible to an extent, on Windows, using the Windows Data Protection API; more specifically the CryptProtectData function. This function allows you to encrypt data against a user profile or machine, so that only that entity may recover the data.

Your setup would look something like this:

  • A dedicated service user is configured for the application.
  • A helper application running as that service user encrypts credentials with CryptProtectData, with dwFlags set to 0, and stores it on disk or in the registry.
  • Application runs as the service user and decrypts credentials on startup, using CryptUnprotectData.
  • Create a group for application service users which is not also privileged in other ways (e.g. part of the Administrators group)
  • Use this technique to allow that group's users to start/stop the service.
  • Ensure that the group cannot write/modify the executable file, or any of the DLLs within the application directory, or otherwise cause an arbitrary executable to be run under the context of the application service user. This also means that they should not be able to modify the registry keys and values for the service under HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Services.

It is important to note that, should the application administrators be able to modify the application binary, or run a program under the context of the application service user, they could simply call CryptUnprotectData and gain access to the credentials.

If you make these application administrators part of the full administrators group, you are giving them the keys to the kingdom - they can install and run whatever software they like at this point (including kernel-mode code) and will be able to bypass any control you implement. Don't do that if you want to maintain control.

  • Good stuff, we are investigating the windows data protection api, but my concern was that if the application has access to the key store, then any admin of the application must have access as well. I'll try this out and see how it goes. – ConditionRacer Mar 7 '15 at 0:54

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