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Solving Access Denied in Crypto Machine Keys

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Previously on OdeToCode I posted about tracking down an AspNetCore build error. Once I realized the access denied message came from the ProgramData\Microsoft\Crypto\RSA\MachineKeys folder, I went searching for reasons why this might happen, and to find possible solutions. Here are some observations based on my research.

For Many Developers, Security Only Gets In The Way

During my NodeJS days I developed a strange vocalization tic. The tic manifested itself every time I found an answer on Stack Overflow suggesting sudo as the answer to a security problem. As in, "just use sudo npm install and you'll be done". The tic resurfaced during my research for access denied messages around MachineKeys. From GitHub issues to Stack Overflow and Microsoft support forms, nearly everyone suggests the developer give themselves "Full Control" of the folder and consider the job finished. There is no root cause analysis or thought given to the idea that although "Full Control" might work, it still might be the wrong answer.

Here is an example where the Full Control solution is encouraged, favorited, and linked to from other issues that encourage developers to use the same work around.

Given that the MachineKeys folder is not in an obvious location for storing user specific data, and given the folder name itself implies the contents are for all the users on the machine, and given the folder can contain the private keys of cryptographic key pairs, I immediately dismissed any answer suggesting full control or taking ownership of the folder.

Not Many People Have This Problem

I also realized during my research that not many people run into this specific problem. The few I found who did some real analysis were pointing fingers at Windows updates. And indeed, this particular machine accepts insider builds of Windows. For those not brave enough to use insider builds, I can say that insider updates are both frequent and are similar to playing with commercial grade fireworks. It's fun when they work, but you are only one misfire away from burning down your house.

I began to suspect my access denied error was a problem with my Windows configuration, and not with the AspNetCore builds or .NET tools. I tried the build for the same commit on two other machines, and both were successful.

Two out of three is a consensus in distributed computing, so now I was certain I had a configuration problem, probably caused by Windows Update incorrectly applying inherited security attributes. I started looking for how to fix the problem.

The Most Unhelpful Support Document in the History of Microsoft Support Documents

In my research I came across the support document titled "Default permissions for the MachineKeys folders" A promising title. There is even some rousing prose in the summary section implying how MachineKeys is a special folder.

The MachineKeys folder stores certificate pair keys for both the computer and users. ... The default permissions on the folder may be misleading when you attempt to determine the minimum permissions that are necessary for proper installation and the accessing of certificates.

I was waiting for the document to rattle off the exact permissions setup, but after an auspicious opening the document spirals into darkness with language and terms from Windows Server 2003. It is true that MachineKeys requires special permissions, but I found it easier to compare settings on two different computers than to translate a 16-year old support document.

My Solution

On my problem machine, the MachineKeys folder inherited permissions from the parent folder. These permissions gave Everyone read permissions on the folder and all files inside, and this is why al.exe would fail with an access denied error. Given that the folder can contain private keys from different users, these setting are also dangerous. The folder shouldn't inherit permissions, we need to set special permissions.

The first step in fixing the mess through the GUI is to right-click the folder, go to Properties, go to the Security tab, click Advanced at the bottom of the dialog, click "Disable inheritance", and then "Remove all inherited permissions from this object".

disable inheritance

Now there is a clean slate to work with. Use the Add button to create a new permissions entry selecting Everyone as the principal. In the Basic Permissions group, select only Read and Write. Make sure "Applies to" has "This folder only" selected.

special permissions

Also add the Administrators group, and allow Full control for this folder only. You'll know the right settings are in place when the regular security tab shows "Special Permissions" for both the Everyone group and Administrators.


These special permissions allow average users to write into the folder, and then read and delete a file they write. But, they cannot list the contents of the folder or touch files from other users (although admins will have the ability to delete files from other users).


Solving security problems requires care and patience. But, I feel better having a working AspNetCore build without compromising the security settings on my machine.