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Encryption Hardening on Windows-Based Servers

Encryption is a vital mechanism on the Internet and web. It ensures that a client (user) and server can have a private conversation without being listened-in on — whether it be social media, photo sharing, e-commerce and banking or anything in between. It also ensures communications cannot be altered or tampered with.

However, encryption is not a single thing but a collection of protocols and algorithms. Some are relatively old, and some new. And some are relatively weak, and modern computing power can crack them, or will be able to crack them in a few years. So encryption, as an ecosystem of technologies, is always being updated to be stronger and more robust, and — importantly — uncrackable.

The first widely-used protocol for secure internet communications was SSL 2 (“Secure Sockets Layer”), released in 1995. SSL 3 was released in 1996; TLS 1.0 (“Transport Layer Security”) in 1999, TLS 1.1 in 2006 and TLS 1.2 in 2008. Microsoft also issued a protocol called PCT in the mid-1990s which was barely used.

Some of these are now obsolete, but not all editions of Windows have optimal encryption configurations by default.

For example:

  • By default, some editions of Windows enable SSL 2 and SSL 3 which are insecure.

  • Editions up to Windows Vista/2008 only support up to TLS 1.0.

  • Windows 7 and greater support TLS 1.1 and TLS 1.2, but they are not enabled by default for server applications.

  • Windows XP/2003 and earlier have a hard-coded list of cipher suites, whereas later editions allow these suites to be redefined, re-ordered or removed, so the better ciphers may be prioritised.

So most versions of Windows need intervention to enable the superior versions and therefore provide the best encryption experience for clients.

The most common uses for encryption in a Windows server context are https/web (Internet Information Services), Remote Desktop/Terminal Services, email (SMTP, Outlook Anywhere) and VPN. Likewise in a Windows workstation context, as a client to those services. Ensuring that your servers are offering only the best encryption is the best way to protect your clients, but there is also an argument to deploy the following changes to workstations so they, too, only negotiate with other servers with the best possible encryption.

All of these services use a component called Schannel to perform cryptography, so there is only a single place that requires hardening, but there are several steps:

Operating System Updates

  • Ensure Windows is fully patched.

    Bug fixes, exploit mitigations and improved cipher suites are sometimes added to Windows, such as:

    Windows 2003 — Cipher suites added by KB948963 and KB3046049, SHA-2 support added by KB938397;

    Windows Server 2008 with Service Pack 2Support for TLS 1.1, 1.2 was added in 2017.

    Windows 7/2012 — Support for TLS 1.1/1.2 added to Remote Desktop Services by KB3080079, SHA-2 support added by KB2949927, additional ciphers and improved default priority list added by KB3161639;

    Windows 8.1/2012 R2 — Cipher suites added by KB2929781;

    Windows Vista/7/8 — MD5 deprecated by KB2862973.

    Windows 10 — Old ciphers removed in Fall Creator's Update.

Trusted Certificate

Obtain a certificate from a trusted certificate authority.

Windows can issue its own certificates, but because only a small number of certificate-issuing authorities are trusted by web browsers and other clients, the client applications will notify the user that the certificate was issued by a system it doesn't trust. Although this doesn't, as such, affect the encryption, it generally produces enough confusion in users that it places a support burden on IT helpdesks, who have to field queries about certificate errors, and/or desensitizes users to them.

Additionally, Windows Server 2008 and earlier or Windows 7 and later without KB2949927 will issue certificates using SHA-1 hashing, which is being deprecated arround 2017 such that many client systems will refuse to communicate with a server that uses it. As of 2014 there were still some certificate authorities that issue certificates with these hashes. Before renewing or obtaining a certificate check that it will use SHA-2 hashes. See also http://blogs.technet.com/b/pki/archive/2010/09/30/sha2-and-windows.aspx.

See also Using A Trusted Certificate on Windows Remote Desktop / Terminal Services.

Check Server's Current Settings

  • If the server is hosting a website, go to https://www.ssllabs.com/ssltest/index.html and enter the URL.

    Without intervention, many editions of Windows will return an ‘F’ rating due to the use of weak protocols and ciphers:

    This doesn't mean, however, that the server will communicate with clients using weak encryption. Well-behaved clients and servers negotiate a connection using the best possible encryption they both support. But the existence of weak encryption on the server allows for attacks against the communication which could trick the client and server into using weaker encryption (a “downgrade attack”, such as the so-called FREAK attack) or attacks against the certificate (DROWN).

    For Windows Server 2008 SP2 (with KB4019276), or Windows 7/2012 and above, ideally you should have an ‘A’ or ‘A-’ rating. For earlier editions, the maximum possible may be ‘C’ due to lack of TLS 1.1+ support in those operating systems.

    Furthermore, it is preferable to obtain the best possible rating but also to reduce the number of warnings. So a ‘B’ rating with few warnings is preferable to a ‘B’ rating with many warnings.

Remove Older, Insecure Protocols

SSL 2 and SSL 3 are old, obsolete and contain many weaknesses. In 2014, SSL 3 was found to be much weaker than previously thought; this is the so-called POODLE vulnerability. Disabling these protocols should only affect obsolete (and therefore unsafe anyway) web browsers, such as Internet Explorer 6 on Windows XP/2003. There really is no reason for any web service to support these browsers and no reason to provide older, unsafe encryption protocols for their benefit.

In Windows XP and above, to remove support for SSL 3 and earlier, open an elevated command prompt and enter:

    reg add "HKLM\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Control\SecurityProviders\SCHANNEL\Protocols\PCT 1.0\Server" /v Enabled /d 0 /t REG_DWORD /f

    reg add "HKLM\System\CurrentControlSet\Control\SecurityProviders\SCHANNEL\Protocols\SSL 2.0\Server" /v Enabled /d 0 /t REG_DWORD /f

    reg add "HKLM\System\CurrentControlSet\Control\SecurityProviders\SCHANNEL\Protocols\SSL 2.0\Client" /v Enabled /d 0 /t REG_DWORD /f

    reg add "HKLM\System\CurrentControlSet\Control\SecurityProviders\SCHANNEL\Protocols\SSL 3.0\Server" /v Enabled /d 0 /t REG_DWORD /f

    reg add "HKLM\System\CurrentControlSet\Control\SecurityProviders\SCHANNEL\Protocols\SSL 3.0\Client" /v Enabled /d 0 /t REG_DWORD /f

Enable Stronger Protocols

To enable TLS 1.1/1.2 on Windows Server 2008 SP2 (with 4019276) or Windows 7 and above:

    reg add "HKLM\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Control\SecurityProviders\SCHANNEL\Protocols\TLS 1.1\Client" /v DisabledByDefault /d 0 /t REG_DWORD /f

    reg add "HKLM\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Control\SecurityProviders\SCHANNEL\Protocols\TLS 1.1\Server" /v DisabledByDefault /d 0 /t REG_DWORD /f

    reg add "HKLM\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Control\SecurityProviders\SCHANNEL\Protocols\TLS 1.2\Client" /v DisabledByDefault /d 0 /t REG_DWORD /f

    reg add "HKLM\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Control\SecurityProviders\SCHANNEL\Protocols\TLS 1.2\Server" /v DisabledByDefault /d 0 /t REG_DWORD /f

    reg add "HKLM\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Control\SecurityProviders\SCHANNEL\Protocols\TLS 1.1\Client" /v Enabled /d 1 /t REG_DWORD /f

    reg add "HKLM\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Control\SecurityProviders\SCHANNEL\Protocols\TLS 1.1\Server" /v Enabled /d 1 /t REG_DWORD /f

    reg add "HKLM\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Control\SecurityProviders\SCHANNEL\Protocols\TLS 1.2\Client" /v Enabled /d 1 /t REG_DWORD /f

    reg add "HKLM\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Control\SecurityProviders\SCHANNEL\Protocols\TLS 1.2\Server" /v Enabled /d 1 /t REG_DWORD /f

Why not just enable TLS 1.2 and disable everything else? TLS 1.0 is still a necessary configuration option on servers, because some down-level clients support only up to TLS 1.0. As these clients become obsolete, there may be a case to remove TLS 1.0 more widely. TLS 1.0 is obsolete, but older clients communicating with this protocol is not a problem in practice (for the moment). In any case, clients and servers which support TLS 1.2 will communicate with that protocol by default, so the presence of TLS 1.0 is moot in that circumstance.

(Previously, Remote Desktop Services only supported up to TLS 1.0 for encryption. Without it, the encryption it offered is a weaker, custom encryption which is undesirable. However with KB3080079 released in 2015, TLS 1.1 and TLS 1.2 are supported, so TLS 1.0 support can be removed from RDS hosts if the clients also support TLS 1.1/1.2.)

Adjust Cipher Suite Priority

Windows negotiates a cipher suite to use with clients, and has a default list of suites to offer in order of preference. However the default list contains weak suites and does not prioritise the best suites.

Windows XP/2003

For Windows XP/2003, the cipher suites available and the order they are offered cannot be changed, but it is possible to remove completely the older ciphers which are unsafe. Open a command prompt and enter:

    reg add "HKLM\System\CurrentControlSet\Control\SecurityProviders\SCHANNEL\Ciphers\NULL" /v Enabled /d 0 /t REG_DWORD /f

    reg add "HKLM\System\CurrentControlSet\Control\SecurityProviders\SCHANNEL\Ciphers\DES 56/56" /v Enabled /d 0 /t REG_DWORD /f

    reg add "HKLM\System\CurrentControlSet\Control\SecurityProviders\SCHANNEL\Ciphers\RC2 40/128" /v Enabled /d 0 /t REG_DWORD /f

    reg add "HKLM\System\CurrentControlSet\Control\SecurityProviders\SCHANNEL\Ciphers\RC2 56/128" /v Enabled /d 0 /t REG_DWORD /f

    reg add "HKLM\System\CurrentControlSet\Control\SecurityProviders\SCHANNEL\Ciphers\RC2 128/128" /v Enabled /d 0 /t REG_DWORD /f

    reg add "HKLM\System\CurrentControlSet\Control\SecurityProviders\SCHANNEL\Ciphers\RC4 40/128" /v Enabled /d 0 /t REG_DWORD /f

    reg add "HKLM\System\CurrentControlSet\Control\SecurityProviders\SCHANNEL\Ciphers\RC4 56/128" /v Enabled /d 0 /t REG_DWORD /f

    reg add "HKLM\System\CurrentControlSet\Control\SecurityProviders\SCHANNEL\Ciphers\RC4 64/128" /v Enabled /d 0 /t REG_DWORD /f

    reg add "HKLM\System\CurrentControlSet\Control\SecurityProviders\SCHANNEL\Ciphers\RC4 128/128" /v Enabled /d 0 /t REG_DWORD /f

Windows Vista and above

To improve the prioritisation on Windows Vista and above, enter:

    reg add HKLM\SOFTWARE\Policies\Microsoft\Cryptography\Configuration\SSL\00010002 /v Functions /d "cipher1,cipher2,cipher3" /f

where cipher1,cipher2,cipher3 is comprised of the list below, with a comma between ciphers and no line breaks.

    TLS_ECDHE_RSA_WITH_AES_256_CBC_SHA384_P521,
    TLS_ECDHE_RSA_WITH_AES_256_CBC_SHA384_P384,
    TLS_ECDHE_RSA_WITH_AES_256_CBC_SHA384_P256,
    TLS_ECDHE_RSA_WITH_AES_256_CBC_SHA_P521,
    TLS_ECDHE_RSA_WITH_AES_256_CBC_SHA_P384,
    TLS_ECDHE_RSA_WITH_AES_256_CBC_SHA_P256,
    TLS_ECDHE_RSA_WITH_AES_128_CBC_SHA256_P521,
    TLS_ECDHE_RSA_WITH_AES_128_CBC_SHA256_P384,
    TLS_ECDHE_RSA_WITH_AES_128_CBC_SHA256_P256,
    TLS_ECDHE_RSA_WITH_AES_128_CBC_SHA_P521,
    TLS_ECDHE_RSA_WITH_AES_128_CBC_SHA_P384,
    TLS_ECDHE_RSA_WITH_AES_128_CBC_SHA_P256,
    TLS_ECDHE_ECDSA_WITH_AES_256_GCM_SHA384_P384,
    TLS_ECDHE_ECDSA_WITH_AES_256_GCM_SHA384_P521,
    TLS_ECDHE_ECDSA_WITH_AES_128_GCM_SHA256_P256,
    TLS_ECDHE_ECDSA_WITH_AES_128_GCM_SHA256_P384,
    TLS_ECDHE_ECDSA_WITH_AES_128_GCM_SHA256_P521,
    TLS_ECDHE_ECDSA_WITH_AES_256_CBC_SHA384_P384,
    TLS_ECDHE_ECDSA_WITH_AES_256_CBC_SHA384_P521,
    TLS_ECDHE_ECDSA_WITH_AES_128_CBC_SHA256_P256,
    TLS_ECDHE_ECDSA_WITH_AES_128_CBC_SHA256_P384,
    TLS_ECDHE_ECDSA_WITH_AES_128_CBC_SHA256_P521,
    TLS_ECDHE_ECDSA_WITH_AES_256_CBC_SHA_P256,
    TLS_ECDHE_ECDSA_WITH_AES_256_CBC_SHA_P384,
    TLS_ECDHE_ECDSA_WITH_AES_256_CBC_SHA_P521,
    TLS_ECDHE_ECDSA_WITH_AES_128_CBC_SHA_P256,
    TLS_ECDHE_ECDSA_WITH_AES_128_CBC_SHA_P384,
    TLS_ECDHE_ECDSA_WITH_AES_128_CBC_SHA_P521,
    TLS_RSA_WITH_AES_256_GCM_SHA384,
    TLS_RSA_WITH_AES_128_GCM_SHA256,
    TLS_RSA_WITH_AES_256_CBC_SHA256,
    TLS_RSA_WITH_AES_256_CBC_SHA,
    TLS_RSA_WITH_AES_128_CBC_SHA256,
    TLS_RSA_WITH_AES_128_CBC_SHA

This configuration also enables Forward Secrecy.

NB. The preferred way to manipulate the cipher list is using the Group Policy editor, by opening gpedit.msc and browsing to Computer ConfigurationAdministrative TemplatesNetworkSSL Configuration Settings, then switching the setting for SSL Cipher Suite Order to Enabled, and entering the cipher list. However the gpedit user interface only allows a cipher list up to 1,023 characters long.

(To support Windows XP/2003 servers and clients, add TLS_RSA_WITH_3DES_EDE_CBC_SHA. This is about the only relatively secure cipher available for those operating systems. As of mid-2015, Internet Explorer 8 on Windows XP/2003 is deprecated and unsafe. So this cipher suite should only be added if support for those clients or servers is unavoidable. Client systems should be migrated to use Mozilla Firefox or Chrome in any case if deprecating the operating system is not possible.

In late 2016, it became apparent Triple DES (3DES) is less secure than previously thought — refer the so-called SWEET32 vulnerability. So this cipher should definitely be left off the ciphers list unless there is some urgent and immutable reason to include it.)

Reboot & Re-Test

After making any of the above changes, reboot to take effect.

If hosting a website, re-test the URL.

Non-Windows Applications

If you are using a non-Microsoft service on a Windows server, hardening Schannel may not affect it. For example, Apache on Windows uses OpenSSL for cryptography. Non-Microsoft web browsers have their own encryption stacks. Many applications which are cross-platform tend to use OpenSSL et al to reduce the burden on supporting different stacks across different operating systems.

Further Reading

Joke!

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