Starting services in safe mode

Recently I was trying to figure out how to start additional services in Windows safe mode. I had a user whose laptop kept crashing at login, I had a quick look and several theories came to mind but uptime was important, so as a temporary workaround I set it up in safe mode with networking.

A few days later the user calls and wants to be able to print in safe mode. I look into it, do some searching, but the prevailing wisdom seemed to be that it wasn’t doable. This sounded like an MCP party line to me so I decide to explore the registry. Eventually I find the HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Control¬†key which has sub-keys of Minimal and Network. Minimal being safe mode, Network being safe mode with networking. It seems to be a whitelist of services, drivers and drive groups that are allowed to start or load.

Therefore it is possible to start additional services and load additional drivers in safe mode – just add a key for the service or driver short name, then a string for type. The below entry (if in a .reg file) would allow the Print Spooler to start in safe mode with networking.

If you want a list of all drivers, driver groups and services starting in normal mode and their corresponding short names check HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Services

I’d caution against whitelisting too much as it kind of defeats the purpose of safe mode, though in certain situations as a quick hack it can useful. It may also be something worth checking the next time you’re dealing with a particularly nasty malware infection. I haven’t seen anything which exploits it yet, but I imagine something does.