Token tactics: How to prevent, detect, and respond to cloud token theft

[…] Recently, the Microsoft Detection and Response Team (DART) has seen an increase in attackers utilizing token theft for this purpose. By compromising and replaying a token issued to an identity that has already completed multifactor authentication, the threat actor satisfies the validation of MFA and access is granted to organizational resources accordingly. This poses to be a concerning tactic for defenders because the expertise needed to compromise a token is very low, is hard to detect, and few organizations have token theft mitigations in their incident response plan.


Tokens are at the center of OAuth 2.0 identity platforms, such as Azure Active Directory (Azure AD). To access a resource (for example, a web application protected by Azure AD), a user must present a valid token. To obtain that token, the user must sign into Azure AD using their credentials. At that point, depending on policy, they may be required to complete MFA. The user then presents that token to the web application, which validates the token and allows the user access.

Flowchart for Azure Active Directory issuing tokens.
Figure 1. OAuth Token flow chart

When Azure AD issues a token, it contains information (claims) such as the username, source IP address, MFA, and more. It also includes any privilege a user has in Azure AD. If you sign in as a Global Administrator to your Azure AD tenant, then the token will reflect that. Two of the most common token theft techniques DART has observed have been through adversary-in-the-middle (AitM) frameworks or the utilization of commodity malware (which enables a ‘pass-the-cookie’ scenario).


When the user is phished, the malicious infrastructure captures both the credentials of the user, and the token.

Flowchart describing how an adversary in the middle attack works.
Figure 3. Adversary-in-the-middle (AitM) attack flowchart

If a regular user is phished and their token stolen, the attacker may attempt business email compromise (BEC) for financial gain.


A “pass-the-cookie” attack is a type of attack where an attacker can bypass authentication controls by compromising browser cookies.


Commodity credential theft malware like Emotet, Redline, IcedID, and more all have built-in functionality to extract and exfiltrate browser cookies. Additionally, the attacker does not have to know the compromised account password or even the email address for this to work those details are held within the cookie.




Organizations can take a significant step toward reducing the risk of token theft by ensuring that they have full visibility of where and how their users are authenticating. To access critical applications like Exchange Online or SharePoint, the device used should be known by the organization. Utilizing compliance tools like Intune in combination with device based conditional access policies can help to keep devices up to date with patches, antivirus definitions, and EDR solutions. Allowing only known devices that adhere to Microsoft’s recommended security baselines helps mitigate the risk of commodity credential theft malware being able to compromise end user devices.

For those devices that remain unmanaged, consider utilizing session conditional access policies and other compensating controls to reduce the impact of token theft:

Protect your users by blocking initial access:

  • Plan and implement phishing resistant MFA solutions such as FIDO2 security keys, Windows Hello for Business, or certificate-based authentication for users.
    • While this may not be practical for all users, it should be considered for users of significant privilege like Global Admins or users of high-risk applications.
  • Users that hold a high level of privilege in the tenant should have a segregated cloud-only identity for all administrative activities, to reduce the attack surface from on-premises to cloud in the event of on-premises domain compromise and abuse of privilege. These identities should also not have a mailbox attached to them to prevent the likelihood of privileged account compromise via phishing techniques.


In instances of token theft, adversaries insert themselves in the middle of the trust chain and often subsequently circumvent security controls. Having visibility, alerting, insights, and a full understanding of where security controls are enforced is key. Treating both identity providers that generate access tokens and their associated privileged identities as critical assets is strongly encouraged.


Source: Token tactics: How to prevent, detect, and respond to cloud token theft – Microsoft Security Blog

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