Access Control in .NET

(Originally published: 30 Mar 2008)

As of v2 of .NET you can get and set the security of securable objects such as files, folders and registry keys.  Other object types can be added as needed.  While all the access control objects derive from the same base classes they share only a few common elements.  Therefore working with the security of a file requires using different classes than registry keys.  This is an unfortunate limitation of the existing implementation since a generic security handler can not be created with the existing objects.  This article will discuss working with the access control classes in .NET.  While the article will use folders as the target object the concepts (but not the classes) apply to any securable object.  To provide a graphical representation for this discussion open the properties for a folder in Windows Explorer and go to the Security tab.  Click the Advanced button to gain access to the more advanced features we will discuss.

All the core access control types are contained in the System.Security.AccessControl namespace.  The types used to get user/group information are available in System.Security.Principal.

Security Basics

Before we get into the .NET implementation it is important to clarify a few security-related concepts.

Object Rights

Each securable object has a list of operations that it supports.  This list of operations are known as security rights (or just rights).  Rights are generally represented as a set of bit flags internally.  Rights can be combined to form more complex rights.  For example Full Control is a combination of all rights.  Certain rights are shared by all objects including read and modify. 

Due to the variety of rights available, security rights are not exposed directly by the base security classes.  Instead each object-dependent implementation exposes its own set of rights as an enumeration.  We will discuss these rights later.

Identity References

In Windows both users and groups (known as identities) are represented as globally unique values known as SIDs (security identifiers).  SIDs are well-formed but not easily remembered.  All identities are referenced via SIDs internally.  Part of a SID includes the domain or machine that owns the identity.  All SIDs from the same machine/domain share at least a partial identifier.

In .NET the SecurityIdentifier class is used to wrap a SID.  While useful for uniquely identifying a user or group creating an instance of this class directly is rarely done.  Instead this class is generally returned by security-related methods.

Since working with SIDs is not generally useful, other than for uniqueness, .NET provides a more user-friendly version available called NTAccount.  This class is specifically used for users and groups.  It provides the user-friendly name for a SID.  You can easily convert between NTAccount and SecurityIdentifier using the Translate method.  In the few cases where NTAccount can not map the SID to a friendly name it will simply use the SID.  The following example displays the name and SID of the current user.

public void DisplayUser () 

   WindowsIdentity id = WindowsIdentity.GetCurrent(); 

   string name = id.User.Translate(typeof(NTAccount)).Value; 
   string sid = id.User.Translate(typeof(SecurityIdentifier)).Value; 

   Console.WriteLine(“Current User = {0}, [{1}]”, name, sid); 

Both NTAccount and SecurityIdentifier derive from IdentityReference.  The base class is generally used in the various security calls to allow either class to be used.  You will almost always want to use NTAccount.


In Windows there are discretionary access control lists (DACLs) and system access control lists (SACLs).  DACLs specify the rights assigned to identities on an object.  Each entry in the DACL is known as a ACE.  SACLs determine the auditing done on an object.  In most cases you will be working with DACLs. 

In .NET DACLs are known as access rules and SACLs are known as audit rules.  Each access rule contains a security right and the identity that has (or does not have) the right.  .NET uses the abstract class AccessRule to represent an access rule.  Each audit rule contains a security right and the condition under which it is logged (success or failure).  .NET uses the abstract class AuditRule to represent an audit rule.  Neither of these classes are used in most cases as the derived classes provide more information.

In Windows an access rule can either allow or deny a specific right to an identity.  Most rules allow the right.  In the rare case of a deny right it takes precedence over all access rules.  In fact access rules are always listed such that deny rules come first.  A deny rule always overrides an allow rule.  Therefore Windows (and your code) can stop looking for a right as soon as it sees a deny rule for the right.

Object Security

Each securable object has a set of security properties exposed through an ObjectSecurity-derived class.  The derived class exposes methods to access all the security settings of an object including the access and audit rules and the owner.  It is also through this class that we can modify the security of an object.  Unfortunately the base ObjectSecurity class does not expose any of these methods.  This makes working with securable objects in a generic manner difficult.  Instead the base class exposes properties that define the types used to represent the access and audit rules, discussed later. 

The following table defines some common securable objects and their associated object security type.

Object Type ObjectSecurity Class Accessor Class
Active Directory ActiveDirectorySecurity DirectoryEntry
Directory DirectorySecurity Directory, DirectoryInfo
File FileSecurity File, FileInfo
Registry Key RegistrySecurity RegistryKey

Fortunately all the built in classes expose the same set of methods so, other than the type name, working with each type is the same.  There is another solution to this delimma.  Most of the security classes derive from CommonObjectSecurity (which itself derives from ObjectSecurity).  This base class exposes the core methods that we will discuss later.  Therefore you can use CommonObjectSecurity in cases where you might want to work with different object types.  Remember that not all security classes derive from this base class.  ActiveDirectorySecurity is one such case.

So how do you get the object’s security to begin with?  As with the security classes, there is no generic way to get this information.  In the above table the Accessor Class column identifies one or more classes that can be used to get access to an object’s security.  In all cases except Active Directory, the type(s) expose a GetAccessControl method.  Static classes return the object security for the parameter passed to the method.  Instance classes return the object security for the current instance.

The following example gets the security for the C:Windows directory.

DirectorySecurity sec = Directory.GetAccessControl(@”c:Windows”);


Access Rules

Each access rule represents: a right, allow/deny flag and the associated identity.  For the standard objects a custom enumerated type is defined to identify the security rights available.  The type of the enumeration is available through the AccessRightType property on the object’s security class, if desired.  The following table defines the enumeration for the standard object types.  We will discuss the last two columns later.

Object Type AccessRightType AccessRuleType AuditRuleType
Active Directory ActiveDirectoryRights ActiveDirectoryAccessRule ActiveDirectoryAuditRule
Directory FileSystemRights FileSystemAccessRule FileSystemAuditRule
File FileSystemRights FileSystemAccessRule FileSystemAuditRule
Registry Key RegistryRights RegistryAccessRule RegistryAuditRule

Starting to notice a pattern yet.  The access right enumerations all end in -Rights.  All the enumerations are marked as flags because several of the rights are combinations of other rights (such as full control).  To get the access rules associated with an object use the GetAccessRules method.  The following example gets the access rules for a directory.

public void PrintDirectorySecurity ( string path ) 

   DirectorySecurity sec = Directory.GetAccessControl(path); 


The GetAccessRules method accepts three parameters: include explicit, include inherited and type of identity.  The first parameter specifies whether rights explicitly assigned to an object are returned.  This is almost always the desired case.  The second parameter specifies where rights inherited from the object’s parent are returned.  The final parameter determines the type of identity reference to be returned.  As discussed earlier there are two standard types: NTAccount and SecurityIdentifier.  For user interfaces the NTAccount is the general choice.

Once we have the access rules we can enumerate them.  The following table lists the important properties of each rule.

Property Description
AccessControlType Determines if this is an allowed or denied right
IdentityReference The user/group with the right
InheritanceFlags Controls how the right is inherited by children
IsInherited Determines if this is an explicit or inherited right
PropagationFlags Determines how the right propagates to children

Notice that the actual rights are not part of the access rule, at least not directly.  Remember that CommonObjectSecurity provides a generic implementation of the security.  However the actual rights are enumerations defined for each object type.  Since CommonObjectSecurity has no way to know what the enumerated values are it doesn’t expose them as a strongly typed property.  The AccessMask property can be used to get the underlying bitmask.  Fortunately each AccessRule-derived class exposes the rights as a strongly typed property named after the enumerated type.  This is the preferred method for getting the rights. 

The following code will list all the rights associated with an object along with some other property values.

public void PrintDirectorySecurity ( string path ) 

   Console.WriteLine(String.Format(“{0,-30} Allowed Inherited {1,-15}”
   Console.WriteLine(new string(‘-‘70)); 

   DirectorySecurity sec = Directory.GetAccessControl(path); 
   foreach (FileSystemAccessRule rule in 
      Console.WriteLine(“{0,-30} {2} {3} {1,-15:g}”
            rule.AccessControlType == AccessControlType.Allow, 

There are a couple of important points about enumerating access rules.  Firstly the rights are not always a valid combination of flags from the enumeration.  Secondly an identity can appear more than once in the list.  This can occur for a variety of reasons, inheritance being one of the more common.  Therefore if you want to get all the rights owned by an identity you need to enumerate all rules.  Finally remember that there are both allow and deny rules.  Deny rules come before allow rules and take precedence.

The following method is a simple implementation for getting the rights of a specific identity.  It takes the associated group memberships into account and deny rights.

static FileSystemRights GetObjectRights (
   DirectorySecurity security,
   WindowsIdentity id ) 

   FileSystemRights allowedRights = 0
   FileSystemRights deniedRights = 0

   foreach (FileSystemAccessRule rule in 
              security.GetAccessRules(truetrue, id.User.GetType())) 
      //If the identity associated with the rule        
        //matches the user or any of their groups  
      if (rule.IdentityReference.Equals(id) ||            
            uint right = (uint)rule.FileSystemRights & 0x00FFFFFF;

         //Filter out the generic rights so we get a           
            //nice enumerated value  
         if (rule.AccessControlType == AccessControlType.Allow) 
            allowedRights |= (FileSystemRights)(right); 
            deniedRights |= (FileSystemRights)(right); 

   return allowedRights ^ deniedRights; 

The method basically enumerates the access rules of the object and builds up the list of rights for the user (taking their group membership into account).  Denied rights are tracked separately.  After all the rights are determined the allowed rights are returned with any denied rights removed.  Notice the filtering that is going on when adding the rights to the list.  The filter removes the extra bits and generic rights that might be associated with a rule.  These are not supported by the various Rights enumerations and would cause us problems if we wanted to see the string representation.

In the Advanced Security Settings of a folder in Windows Explorer the Permission entries map to these access rules.  You will find that Explorer collapses some of the rules for convenience.  We will discuss the Apply To column later.

Inheritance and Propagation

You can determine if a rule is inherited through the IsInherited property.  Whether a rule is inherited or not is determined by the InheritanceFlags and PropagationFlags properties.  The inheritance flags determine who inherits the rule: child containers (folders), objects (files), both or neither.  The propagation flags determine whether the object (for which you are adding the rule) gets the rule as well.  The following table defines the various combinations of flags and how they map to folder security in Explorer.

PropagationFlags InheritanceFlags Description (Explorer)
None ContainerInherit This folder and subfolders
  ObjectInherit This folder and files
  ContainerInherit | ObjectInherit This folder, subfolders and files
InheritOnly ContainerInherit Subfolders only
  ObjectInherit Files only
  ContainerInherit | ObjectInherit Subfolders and files only

The table left out the propagation flag NoPropagationInherit.  This odd flag can be combined with any of the other entries in the table.  When applied it identifies the rule as applying only to the objects and containers within the target object.  In Explorer this maps to the checkbox below the permission entries (when editing) that says Apply these permissions to objects and/or containers within this container only.

Modifying Access Rules

Modifying access rules can be easy or hard depending on the situation.  To give an identity a new right you create a new access rule and then add it to the object security instance using the AddAccessRule method.  The following example gives the specified user the delete right to a directory.

public void GiveUserDeleteAccess ( string path, WindowsIdentity user ) 

   DirectorySecurity sec = Directory.GetAccessControl(path); 

   FileSystemAccessRule rule = new FileSystemAccessRule(user.User, 
                FileSystemRights.Delete, AccessControlType.Allow); 


   Directory.SetAccessControl(path, sec); 

Notice the call to SetAccessControl.  The object security instance you obtain from GetAccessControl is a snapshot of the current state of the object.  Changes you make to it do not actually get applied until you call SetAccessControl.  As a result it is when you call SetAccessControl that you are most likely to get an exception such as for unauthorized access or for a missing object.  Whenever you make any changes to an object’s security you must remember to call this method to persist the changes.  In general you will make all the necessary changes before attempting to persist them.

Removing rights is even easier.  When removing rights you have a little more flexibility.  You can remove a specific identity/right rule, all rights for a particular identity or all rights for all users.  To remove a specific identity/right use the RemoveAccessRule.  The following example removes the right we added earlier.

public void TakeUserDeleteAccess ( string path, WindowsIdentity user ) 

   DirectorySecurity sec = Directory.GetAccessControl(path); 

   FileSystemAccessRule rule = new FileSystemAccessRule(
                user.User, FileSystemRights.Delete, 


   Directory.SetAccessControl(path, sec); 

To remove all the rights a user has to an object use PurgeAccessRules instead.  It simply requires the identity reference.  You could also the ModifyAccessRule method if you like.  The various methods all basically do the same thing.  In fact methods implemented in derived classes generally call into the base class methods.  Prefer the versions defined in derived classes but do not worry about going out of your way to call them if the base classes are sufficient.

Modifying Inherited Rules  

You can not just modify an inherited rule.  The rule is defined and owned by a parent object.  To modify such a rule you first need to break the inheritance.  When breaking inheritance you have the option of either copying the existing inherited rule or removing it altogether.  In Explorer when you attempt to edit an inherited rule you will notice that it does not allow you to edit the inherited rights.  You can, of course, add new rights. 

Unchecking the Include inheritable permissions from this object’s parent box will display a dialog prompting you to copy or remove the inherited rules.  In .NET you use the SetAccessRuleProtection method on the security object.  The following code demonstrates this method.

DirectorySecurity sec = Directory.GetAccessControl(path); 

//Copy existing inherited rules 

//or, remove inherited rules 

After calling SetAccessRuleProtection you can then modifying all the access rules on the object.

Audit rules  

Audit rules work similar to access rules.  In fact the only real difference is that the members contain -Audit rather than -Access.  Therefore if you want to add a new audit rule use AddAuditRule.  To get the audit rules use GetAuditRules, etc. 

Audit rules have the same properties as well except in lieu of AccessControlType (to define allow and deny rules) they have the AuditFlags property.  Auditing can occur when the operation succeeds, fails or both.  The property is a bitwise flag combination of AuditFlags.  The following table defines the flags.

AuditFlags Description
None No auditing
Success Audit on successful attempts
Failure Audit on failure attempts


Each securable object is owned by an identity.  Owning an object gives an identity the special privilege of changing the permissions irrelevant of access rules.  This prevents an owner from being locked out of their own object.

To get the owner of an object use the GetOwner method.  The following example gets the owner of the folder.

public IdentityReference GetDirectoryOwner ( string path ) 

   DirectorySecurity sec = Directory.GetAccessControl(path); 
   return sec.GetOwner(typeof(NTAccount)); 

Setting the owner is just as easy using the SetOwner method.  To take ownership of an object requires the right permissions so this method can fail.  The following code makes the Administrators group the owner of the folder.

public void SetDirectoryOwner (     
        string path,     
        IdentityReference newOwner ) 

   DirectorySecurity sec = Directory.GetAccessControl(path); 



There are quite a few features of the .NET access control that we did not cover.  However this article should hopefully get you started in the right direction.


  1. Great, very clear article about security objects. I was strucling for a while because the MSDN articles about security objects are not very readable and are missing good examples. Thanks.

  2. In GetObjectRights function you
    return allowedRights ^ deniedRights

    Isn’t this getting wrong if one of the denied bit is set and not the corresponding allowedRights ?
    XOR’ing this will return object rights even though your not having it

  3. TaylorMichaelL

    I believe you’re write Ludda. I think it should be

    allowedRights &= ~deniedRights;

    but I don’t have time to test it right now. I’ll try and verify it.