What is Kerberos Delegation ?

Kerberos delegation allows a service to request resources or perform actions on behalf of a user, while maintaining the security principles of authentication and authorization.

Delegation within Kerberos plays a pivotal role in facilitating secure, seamless interactions between services on behalf of users.

Kerberos, a cornerstone of modern network security architectures, offers a robust framework for authenticating users and services over a non-secure network. It eliminates the need to transmit passwords directly, instead using cryptographic tickets to prove identity. However, in complex IT environments, situations frequently arise where a service must act on behalf of a user to access other services. This requirement led to the development of Kerberos delegation.

This capability is vital in scenarios where user-initiated processes involve multiple tiers of services, each requiring authentication. The concept might seem straightforward, yet its implementation and the security considerations it entails are complex and nuanced. It is essential for IT and cybersecurity professionals to understand the mechanics, applications, and risks associated with Kerberos delegation to effectively secure their environments.

How Kerberos Delegation Works

Historically, Kerberos was designed for a simpler networked environment, focusing on authenticating users to services directly accessed. However, as IT infrastructures evolved into more layered and interconnected architectures, the need for services to communicate on behalf of users became evident. This shift necessitated the development of delegation within Kerberos, allowing for more complex interactions while maintaining security assurances.

The delegation process in Kerberos involves several key steps:

  1. The user authenticates to the Kerberos Key Distribution Center (KDC) and receives a Ticket-Granting Ticket (TGT).
  2. When accessing a service that requires delegation, the service requests a service ticket from the KDC on behalf of the user, indicating the need to access another service downstream.
  3. The KDC issues a service ticket that the initial service can use to request access to the downstream service on behalf of the user.

This mechanism ensures that user credentials are never exposed to services, adhering to Kerberos’ security principles.

Types of Kerberos Delegation

In the realm of Kerberos delegation, three main types have been developed to cater to varying levels of security needs and application architectures. These types—unconstrained, constrained, and resource-based constrained delegation—each offer different mechanisms for services to act on behalf of users, with specific controls over what services can be accessed.

Unconstrained Delegation

This is the most permissive form of delegation within Kerberos, allowing a service to request access to any other service on behalf of the user. With unconstrained delegation, once a user authenticates to a service, that service can obtain tickets to any other service for the user.

This form of delegation is powerful but poses significant security risks if not carefully managed, as it essentially grants the service wide-ranging powers to act on behalf of the user.

Constrained Delegation

Introduced to mitigate the risks associated with unconstrained delegation, constrained delegation limits the services to which a delegate can request access on behalf of the user. It requires specifying in advance which services are allowed for delegation, providing a controlled and secure environment for delegation to occur.

This setup relies on the Service for User to Proxy (S4U2Proxy) extension, which enables a service to obtain a ticket to a specific service on behalf of the user, but only if that service is explicitly allowed.

Resource-Based Constrained Delegation

An evolution of constrained delegation, resource-based constrained delegation further enhances security and flexibility by allowing the target service’s administrator to control which services can delegate to it.

Introduced in Windows Server 2012, this type shifts the delegation configuration from the domain controller to the resource itself. It leverages the Service for User to Self (S4U2Self) and S4U2Proxy extensions to allow a service to request access on behalf of the user based on permissions defined at the resource level, not globally across the domain.

Each type of delegation addresses specific security concerns and operational needs:

  • Unconstrained Delegation is suitable for highly trusted environments where ease of use trumps the potential for abuse.
  • Constrained Delegation provides a balanced approach, offering flexibility while significantly limiting the potential for misuse by restricting delegation to specified services.
  • Resource-Based Constrained Delegation offers the highest level of control and security, allowing resource owners to directly manage which services can act on their behalf, thereby minimizing the risk of unauthorized delegation.

Security Considerations and Risks

In the complex world of Kerberos delegation, the security considerations and risks are paramount. Each type of delegation—unconstrained, constrained, and resource-based constrained—carries specific vulnerabilities that could potentially be exploited if not properly managed. Understanding these risks and the measures to mitigate them is essential for maintaining the integrity and security of an IT environment.

Unconstrained Delegation Risks

  • The most significant risk with unconstrained delegation is the possibility of a compromised service account being used to access any other service within the network on behalf of users. This could lead to privilege escalation and lateral movement within the network if attackers gain control of such an account.
  • Mitigation strategies include limiting the use of unconstrained delegation to highly trusted services, using more secure forms of delegation where possible, and employing strict monitoring and auditing to detect unusual activity.

Constrained Delegation Risks

  • While constrained delegation limits the scope of services that a delegated account can access, misconfigurations or overly permissive settings can still present opportunities for attackers. For example, if a service account is allowed to delegate to sensitive services, and that account is compromised, the impact could be substantial.
  • Mitigating these risks involves regularly reviewing the services allowed in the msDS-AllowedToDelegateTo attribute and ensuring that only necessary services are permitted.

Resource-Based Constrained Delegation Risks

  • The decentralization of delegation authority to resource owners increases flexibility but also introduces the risk of inconsistent security policies or configurations across different resources. If a resource owner inadvertently allows delegation from an insecure service, it could compromise the resource.
  • To mitigate these risks, organizations should establish clear policies for configuring resource-based constrained delegation, provide training for resource owners, and conduct regular audits to ensure compliance with security best practices.

How to identify if Kerberos is being used

There are a few methods you can use to identify the presence of Kerberos:

  1. Check the system logs:
    1. On Linux systems, the Kerberos authentication events are usually logged in /var/log/messages or /var/log/syslog.
    2. On Windows systems, they are usually located in the Event Viewer under the “Security” category.
    3. Look for errors or warnings related to Kerberos.
    4. Common error messages include:
  2. Look for Kerberos configuration files:
    1. On Linux systems, the Kerberos configuration files are typically located in /etc/krb5.conf.
    2. On Windows systems, they are usually located in %WINDIR%\krb5.ini.
    3. Check the configuration files for errors or inconsistencies.
    4. Make sure that the Kerberos realm is correct and that the KDC servers are listed correctly.
  3. Check the registry:
    1. On Windows systems, the Kerberos configuration is also stored in the registry.
    2. The relevant registry key is HKLM\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Services\Kdc.
    3. Check the registry key for errors or inconsistencies.
    4. Make sure that the Kerberos realm is correct and that the KDC servers are listed correctly.
  4. Use a network sniffer:
    1. A network sniffer can be used to capture Kerberos authentication traffic.
    2. This can be useful for troubleshooting Kerberos problems or for monitoring Kerberos activity.
    3. Look for errors or anomalies in the Kerberos traffic.
  5. Use a Kerberos testing tool:
    1. There are a number of Kerberos testing tools available that can be used to test the Kerberos configuration and authentication process.
    2. Some of these tools include:
      1. kinit
      2. klist
      3. kdcdiag
      4. krb5-test-client
      5. krb5-test-server
    3. Use the Kerberos testing tools to test the Kerberos configuration and authentication process.
    4. Look for errors or inconsistencies in the test results.

Configuration and Management

Configuring and managing Kerberos delegation is a critical step in ensuring that it serves its intended purpose without compromising security. Each type of delegation—unconstrained, constrained, and resource-based constrained—requires specific configuration steps, involving both the Active Directory environment and individual service settings.

Unconstrained Delegation:

  • Enable on a service account by setting the TRUSTED_FOR_DELEGATION flag in the Active Directory user account properties.
  • No restrictions are placed on the services to which the delegate can request tickets on behalf of the user, making careful selection of accounts for this delegation type crucial to avoid security risks.

Constrained Delegation (S4U2Proxy):

  • Configure by specifying the services to which a particular service account can present delegated credentials. This is done by modifying the msDS-AllowedToDelegateTo attribute in the service account’s Active Directory object.
  • Requires setting the TRUSTED_TO_AUTH_FOR_DELEGATION flag on the service account if protocol transition (S4U2Self) will also be used, allowing services to request tickets on behalf of users without an initial Kerberos authentication.

Resource-Based Constrained Delegation:

  • Configure by setting permissions on the target service’s Active Directory object, specifically in the msDS-AllowedToActOnBehalfOfOtherIdentity attribute. This allows the resource owner to control which services can delegate to it directly.
  • Unlike traditional constrained delegation, resource-based constrained delegation does not require changes on the delegate service account, simplifying management and increasing flexibility.


The landscape of Kerberos delegation encompasses a robust framework designed to navigate the complex security demands of modern networked environments. From its inception as a solution to authenticate users across non-secure networks, Kerberos has evolved to address sophisticated service-to-service communication scenarios through delegation. This capability, while powerful, necessitates a comprehensive understanding and meticulous management to harness effectively while mitigating inherent security risks.

Security considerations are paramount across all forms of Kerberos delegation. The potential for abuse or misconfiguration underscores the need for vigilant management, regular auditing, and adherence to the principle of least privilege. By understanding the specific risks associated with each delegation type and employing best practices, organizations can significantly reduce vulnerabilities.