Kernel Extended Attributes

Kernel Extended Attributes (Kernel EA's) are a feature added to NTFS in Windows 8 as a way to boost the performance of image file signature validation. It is an expensive operation to verify an images signature. Therefore, storing information about whether a binary, which has previously been validated, has been changed or not would reduce the number of instances where an image would have to undergo a full signature check.


EA's with the name prefix $Kernel can only be modified from kernel mode. Any EA that begins with this string is considered a Kernel EA. Before retrieving the necessary update sequence number (USN), it is recommended that FSCTL_WRITE_USN_CLOSE_RECORD be issued first as this will commit any pending USN Journal updates on the file that may have occurred earlier. Without this, the FileUSN value may change shortly after setting of the Kernel EA.

It is recommended that a Kernel EA contains at least the following information:

  • USN UsnJournalID
    • The UsnJournalID field is a GUID that identifies the current incarnation of USN Journal File. The USN Journal can be deleted and created from user mode per volume. Each time the USN Journal is created a new UsnJournalID GUID will be generated. With this field, you can tell if there was a period of time where the USN Journal was disabled and can revalidate.
  • USN FileUSN
    • The FileUSN value contains the USN ID of the last change that was made to the file and is tracked inside the Master File Table (MFT) record for the given file.
      • When the USN Journal is deleted, FileUSN is reset to zero.

This information, along with any other a given usage might need, is then set on the file as a Kernel EA.

Setting a Kernel Extended Attribute

In order to set a Kernel EA, it must begin with the prefix "$Kernel." and be trailed by a valid EA name string. An attempt to set a Kernel EA from user mode will be silently ignored. The request will return STATUS_SUCCESS but no actual EA modification will be made. To set a Kernel EA calling an API like ZwSetEaFile or FltSetEaFile from kernel mode is not sufficient. This is because SMB supports the setting of EA’s across the network and those requests will be issued from kernel mode on the server.

To set a Kernel EA the caller must also set the IRP_MN_KERNEL_CALL value in the MinorFunction field of the IRP (I/O request packet). Since the only way to set this field is by generating a custom IRP, the routine FsRtlSetKernelEaFile has been exported from the FsRtl package as a support function to set up a Kernel EA.

You may not intermix the setting of normal and kernel EA’s in the same call to FsRtlSetKernelEaFile. If you do this the operation will be failed with STATUS_INTERMIXED_KERNEL_EA_OPERATION. Setting a Kernel EA will not generate a USN_REASON_EA_CHANGE record to the USN Journal; as a consequence, kernel EA's and regular EA's cannot be used in the same operation.

Querying an Extended Attribute

Querying the EA’s on a file from user mode will return both normal and Kernel EA’s. They are returned to user mode to minimize any application compatibility issues. The normal ZwQueryEaFile and FltQueryEaFile operations will return both normal and kernel EA's from both user and kernel modes.

When only a FileObject is available, using FsRtlQueryKernelEaFile may be more convenient for use to query for Kernel EA's from kernel mode.

Querying Update Sequence Number Journal Information

The FSCTL_QUERY_USN_JOURNAL operation requires SE_MANAGE_VOLUME_PRIVILEGE even when issued from kernel mode unless the IRP_MN_KERNEL_CALL value was set in the MinorFunction field of the IRP. The routine FsRtlKernelFsControlFile has been exported from the FsRtl package in the Kernel to easily allow kernel mode components to issue this USN request.

NOTE Starting with Windows 10, version 1703 and later this operation no longer requires SE_MANAGE_VOLUME_PRIVILEGE.

Auto-Deletion of Kernel Extended Attributes

Simply rescanning a file because the USN ID of the file changed can be expensive as there are many benign reasons a USN update may be posted to the file. To simplify this, an auto delete of Kernel EA’s feature was added to NTFS.

Because not all Kernel EA’s may want to be deleted in this scenario, an extended EA prefix name is used. If a Kernel EA begins with: "$Kernel.Purge." then if any of the following USN reasons are written to the USN journal, NTFS will delete all kernel EAs that exist on that file that conforms to the given naming syntax:


This delete of Kernel EA’s will be successful even in low memory situations.


  • Kernel EA's cannot be tampered with by user mode components.
  • Kernel EA’s can exist in the same file as a normal EA.

See Also