NTFS Permissions: Best Practices for Your File Server!

NTFS permissions are used to control access to files and folders in Windows environments. While any administrator knows how to set or change NTFS permissions, the tricky part is managing them consistently and efficiently for large groups of users. Our NTSF permission guide will teach you how to avoid the 5 most common mistakes admins make and walk you through the best practices for NTFS permission management.

How to Set NTFS Permissions Correctly

NTFS permissions allow you to grant directory access to individual users and groups. In contrast to share permissions, which only give you three permission levels (Read, Change and Full Control), NTFS permissions offer much more granular control. To set NTFS permissions, right-click on a folder or file and select “Properties”, then go to the “Security” tab to select permissions or click on “Advanced” for further settings and special permissions.

Available permission levels include:

  • Full Control: Grants complete access, including the ability to see, read, write, execute and delete files or folders, as well as change permission settings for all subdirectories.

  • Modify: The user can see, read, execute, write and delete files. Also allows for the deletion of the folder itself.

  • Read & Execute: Can view folder contents and run programs or scripts.

  • List folder contents: Allows the user to see files and directories contained within a folder. An important setting for navigating to deeper levels in the folder structure.

  • Read: Can see folder contents and also open the files and folders in question.

  • Write: Users can add new files and folders and write to existing files.

  • Special permissions: Additional permissions available through the Advanced Security Settings in the Windows file system. Includes options such as Read Attributes, Create Files, Delete Subfolders and Files or Traverse Folder.

In order to manage permissions for Windows networks effectively, it’s important to understand the relationship between NTFS and Share Permissions. Here’s the short version: You can combine Share Permissions and NTFS Permissions to manage file shares. The more restrictive permission takes priority, so if the Share Permission is set to Change and NTFS is set to Read, the user will only be able to read the file.

Of course, Share Permissions only apply when access is made through through the network. Since NTFS permissions offer more fine-grained options for access control, it is recommended to leave Share permissions on a high level (Full Control for admins and Change for normal users) and define the actual permission level using the NTFS system. This gives you more granular control and helps avoid conflicts between the two permission types.

Setting NTFS Permissions: The 5 Most Common Mistakes


Direct User Access

The number 1 mistake admins make is assigning NTFS permissions directly to users instead of managing access through groups. This quick fix might save time in the moment, but inevitably comes back to bite you when you need to change or review permissions.

Yes, it takes time and effort to create and manage the global user groups and local permission groups required to implement Microsoft’s AGDLP principle. But it’s still a lot easier than trying to keep track of thousands of individual permissions. When file access needs to be adjusted later on, would you rather make one change to the relevant permission group or change the settings for dozens of individual users? Exactly.

There’s also the problem of transparency: While you can easily check which groups a user is part of by examining their account, direct access they have been granted will not show up in this list. You would have to check the properties of the directory in question to see the permission entry. If the user is deleted later on, their entries in the Access Control List will stay behind and turn into so-called orphaned SIDs, which add clutter to your Active Directory.


Assigning Permissions to User Groups

Similar to granting direct access to users is the common practice of assigning permissions directly to groups of users instead of adding this organizational group to dedicated permission groups that govern access to a specific resource. User groups should only be used to group together staff members that have the same business role and therefore need access to the same files and folders.

Again, the problem with assigning permissions directly to user groups is a lack of transparency: If you check the group later, you won’t immediately know which permissions it holds. Dedicated permission groups with clear names such as “FS_Sales_Read” makes it much easier to keep track.


Reusing Permission Groups

Even admins who follow these recommendations and set NTFS permissions via dedicated permission groups tend to fall for another common mistake: reusing groups to assign additional permissions that go beyond the intended use of the group. It may be tempting to alter an existing group to add or change permission levels for the sake of convenience.

However, by using the same AD group to assign new access rights, group members will end up with more permissions than the group name indicates. This makes permission reporting confusing and misleading. When new users are added to the group later on, they will receive more access than the group name suggests, which can lead to privilege creep and increase the risk of insider threats.


Ignoring Conventions

You may have noticed a common theme in these mistakes: Whenever you deviate from the agreed-upon approach, whether it’s group usage or naming conventions, things quickly get chaotic. To keep things clear and avoid confusion, all admins must stick to the same standard at all times. That’s part of the reason why manually implementing NTFS best practices requires a great deal of effort and discipline across your entire organization.


Broken Folder Navigation

Sometimes users are given access to a specific subfolder but cannot navigate to it through the Windows Explorer. This is because permissions for a subdirectory do not automatically come with the permission to navigate through superordinate folders. Technically, users could get around this issue by entering the exact path into the Explorer address bar. But since your average user relies on clicking their way to their destination, you’ll want to make sure they can actually reach the desired folder through the GUI.

This requires granting them list permissions (“Show folder contents”) for superordinate directories. The best way to set list rights is via dedicated list groups: By making permission groups members of the list groups for directories above their folder, users automatically receive the necessary permissions when they are given access to a resource.

However, it is very important to restrict inheritance with this approach to ensure that users can only view folder contents for the one directory they need to navigate through, not all folders on the same level. Otherwise, users end up being able to browse all directories on the file server. To avoid these kinds of mistakes in the future, read our free white paper and learn about best practices for managing permissions in Microsoft environments.

You can learn more about how to securely manage Windows environments in our guide to Active Directory security.


Best Practices for Access Management In Microsoft® Environments

Our in-depth guide explains how to manage access securely and efficiently from a technical and organizational standpoint, including tips for implementation, reporting and auditing.

NTFS Permissions Best Practices

So we’ve established what not to do when it comes to NTFS permissions, but how do you actually manage NTFS permissions correctly? There are various aspects to consider, but to help you get started, we’ve compiled the most important recommendations for managing NTFS permissions safely and efficiently.

At a glance – 9 best practices for managing NTFS permissions:

  • 1

    Create consistent policies and naming conventions

  • 2

    Always use permission groups, avoid assigning permissions directly

  • 3

    Keep the root directory clear, don’t allow users to create new folders

  • 4

    Use “full control” only when absolutely necessary

  • 5

    Assign “list folder contents” through nested permission groups

  • 6

    Keep explicit permissions to the top of the directory tree, let inheritance handle the rest

  • 7

    Ensure that permission inheritance is working as intended

  • 8

    Enable access-based enumeration to hide sensitive information

  • 9

    Implement least privilege access for optimal security

Create a Consistent Policy

To establish a standardized process for granting access, naming groups, adding new directories etc., it helps to put everything in writing. Clear documentation ensures that you always have a reference point when you are unsure of the proper way to do handle an edge case. When you want a large team of admins to follow a consistent approach, there is really no way around establishing formal, written policies.

Always Use Groups

Always use permission groups to set NTFS permissions. Do not assign NTFS permissions directly to users or objects: Direct permissions are impossible to keep track of and when the user in question is removed from the Active Directory, they will leave behind orphaned entries in the access control list.

Keep Root Clear

If you let users, even executives or managers, create new folders in the root directory, your tidy folder structure will soon become cluttered with random items. Instead, keep the root-level hierarchy locked down and only allow IT to add new directories.

Avoid Full Control

It should go without saying, but there’s really no scenario where a normal, non-IT user needs the Full Control permission. Compared to Modify, which already lets them create, edit and delete files, all Full Control adds is the ability to change settings and permission levels, which you do not want normal staff to do.

User navigates through windows folder structure to target directory.
NTFS Permissions Best Practices: The key steps to safe and efficient NTFS permissions! Adobe Stock, (c) greenbutterfly

Remember Folder Navigation

Users who have Read and Execute access to a specific folder must also have the List Folder Contents permission for any higher-up folders in order to navigate to their target. The List Folder Contents permission should be assigned via group membership. By using nested groups, you can ensure that each user automatically receives the NTFS permissions for browsing when they are given the relevant permissions to the subordinate folder.

Don’t Go Too Deep

Do not set explicit NTFS permissions on deep levels in the directory tree. Stick to two or three levels for explicit permissions to keep things simple and let permission inheritance take care of the rest. Otherwise, the number of permission groups and list groups you need quickly grows out of control. Since Windows actually puts a hard limit on the number of groups a user can be part of, having too many of these groups can lead to not all permissions being read correctly.

Avoid Breaking Inheritance

In Windows, it is possible to break inheritance for permissions on each folder level. This means that the usual mechanisms (i.e. superordinate NTFS permissions are inherited by subordinate folders) can be bypassed, making it possible to set entirely new NTFS permissions. This process should be avoided because it makes it more difficult to read NTFS permissions and, as a result, permission structures become confusing and chaotic.

Use Access Based Enumeration

Windows 2003 R2 introduced Access Based Enumeration (ABE), which allows you to hide folders from users who do not have access to them. Activating this setting will massively improve clarity for users, as they no longer have to comb through hundreds of directories just to find the specific folder they actually need.

Implement Least Privilege Access

In accordance with the Principle of Least Privilege, each user should only be given the minimum level of access required to do their job. Eliminating unnecessary permissions prevents them from being exploited in the case of a cyberattack and is a key requirement of modern security frameworks like Zero Trust, as well as many compliance standards such as ISO 27001, NIST CSF and HIPAA.

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About the Author: Joe Köller

Joe Köller is tenfold’s Content Manager and responsible for the IAM Blog, where he dives deep into topics like compliance, cybersecurity and digital identities. From security regulations to IT best practices, his goal is to make challenging subjects approachable for the average reader. Before joining tenfold, Joe covered games and digital media for many years.