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Account lockout threshold

Published: May 2, 2012

Updated: November 16, 2013

Applies To: Windows 7, Windows 8, Windows Server 2008, Windows Server 2008 R2, Windows Server 2012, Windows Vista

This security policy reference topic for the IT professional describes the best practices, location, values, and security considerations for this policy setting.

The Account lockout threshold policy setting determines the number of failed logon attempts that will cause a user account to be locked out. A locked-out account cannot be used until it is reset by an administrator or until the number of minutes specified by Account lockout duration expires. You can set a value from 1 through 999 failed logon attempts, or you can specify that the account will never be locked out by setting the value to 0. If Account lockout threshold is set to a number greater than zero, Account lockout duration must be greater than or equal to the value of Reset account lockout counter after.

Failed password attempts on workstations or member servers that have been locked by using CTRL+ALT+DELETE or password-protected screen savers do not count as failed logon attempts unless Interactive logon: Require Domain Controller authentication to unlock workstation is set to Enabled. If Interactive logon: Require Domain Controller authentication to unlock workstation is enabled, repeated failed password attempts to unlock the workstation will count against the account lockout threshold.

Brute force password attacks can be automated to try thousands or even millions of password combinations for any or all user accounts. Limiting the number of failed logons that can be performed nearly eliminates the effectiveness of such attacks.

However, it is important to note that a denial-of-service attack could be performed on a domain that has an account lockout threshold configured. A malicious user could programmatically attempt a series of password attacks against all users in the organization. If the number of attempts is greater than the value of Account lockout threshold, the attacker could potentially lock out every account.

This policy setting is supported on versions of Windows that are designated in the Applies To list.

  • A user-defined number from 0 through 999

  • Not defined

Because vulnerabilities can exist when this value is configured and when it is not, any organization should weigh their identified threats and the risks that they are trying to mitigate. There are two options to consider for this policy setting:

  • Set Account lockout threshold to 0. This ensures that accounts will not be locked out. This setting will prevent a denial-of-service attack that intentionally locks out all or some accounts. In addition, this setting helps reduce Help Desk calls because users cannot accidentally lock themselves out of their accounts.

    Because it will not prevent a brute force attack, a value of 0 should only be chosen if both of the following criteria are explicitly met:

    • Password Policy settings force all users to have complex passwords made up of eight or more characters.

    • A robust auditing mechanism is in place to alert administrators when a series of failed logons are occurring in the environment.

    If these criteria cannot be met, set Account lockout threshold to a high enough value that users can accidentally mistype their password several times before they are locked out of their account, but ensure that a brute-force password attack would still lock out the account. It is advisable to specify a value of 50 invalid logon attempts. Keep in mind, however, that although this setting can reduce the number of Help Desk calls by reducing the number of user lockouts, it cannot prevent a denial-of-service attack.

  • Account lockout policy should not be applied haphazardly. While you increase the probability of thwarting an unauthorized attack on your organization with account lockout policy, you can also unintentionally lock out authorized users, which can be quite costly for your organization.

  • If you decide to apply account lockout policy, set the Account lockout threshold policy setting to a high enough number that authorized users are not locked out of their user accounts simply because they mistype a password.

GPO_name \Computer Configuration\Windows Settings\Security Settings\Account Policies\Account Lockout Policy

The following table lists the actual and effective default policy values for the most recent supported versions of Windows. Default values are also listed on the policy’s property page.

 

Server type or Group Policy Object (GPO) Default value

Default domain policy

0 invalid login attempts

Default domain controller policy

Not defined

Stand-alone server default settings

0 invalid login attempts

Domain controller effective default settings

0 invalid login attempts

Member server effective default settings

0 invalid login attempts

Effective GPO default settings on client computers

0 invalid login attempts

There are no differences in the way this policy setting works between supported versions of Windows.

This section describes how an attacker might exploit a feature or its configuration, how to implement the countermeasure, and the possible negative consequences of countermeasure implementation.

Online brute force password attacks can use automated methods to try millions of password combinations for any user account. The effectiveness of such attacks can be almost eliminated if you limit the number of failed logons that can be performed.

However, a denial-of-service (DoS) attack could be performed on a domain that has an account lockout threshold configured. An attacker could programmatically attempt a series of password attacks against all users in the organization. If the number of attempts is greater than the account lockout threshold, the attacker might be able to lock out every account without needing any special privileges or being authenticated in the network.

noteNote
Offline password attacks are not countered by this policy setting.

Because vulnerabilities can exist when this value is configured and when it is not configured, two distinct countermeasures are defined. Any organization should weigh the choice between the two, based on their identified threats and the risks that they want to mitigate. The two countermeasure options are:

  • Configure the Account lockout threshold setting to 0. This configuration ensures that accounts will not be locked out, and it will prevent a DoS attack that intentionally attempts to lock out accounts. This configuration also helps reduce Help Desk calls because users cannot accidentally lock themselves out of their accounts. Because it does not prevent a brute force attack, this configuration should be chosen only if both of the following criteria are explicitly met:

    • The password policy requires all users to have complex passwords of 8 or more characters.

    • A robust audit mechanism is in place to alert administrators when a series of failed logons occur in the environment.

  • Configure the Account lockout threshold policy setting to a sufficiently high value to provide users with the ability to accidentally mistype their password several times before the account is locked, but ensure that a brute force password attack still locks the account. A good recommendation for such a configuration is 50 invalid logon attempts, which prevents accidental account lockouts and reduces the number of Help Desk calls, but does not prevent a DoS attack. We recommend this option if your organization cannot implement complex password requirements and an audit policy that alerts administrators to a series of failed logon attempts. Using this type of policy must be accompanied by a process to unlock locked accounts that can be implemented whenever needed to help mitigate massive lockouts caused by an attack on your systems.

If this policy setting is enabled, a locked-out account is not usable until it is reset by an administrator or until the account lockout duration expires. Enabling this setting will likely generate a number of additional Help Desk calls.

If you configure the Account lockout threshold policy setting to 0, there is a possibility that an attacker's attempt to discover passwords with a brute force password attack might go undetected if a robust audit mechanism is not in place. If you configure this policy setting to a number greater than 0, an attacker can easily lock out any accounts for which the account name is known. This is especially dangerous considering that no privileges other than access to the network are necessary to lock the accounts.

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