Understanding Linux File Permissions

File permissions are probably one of the biggest difference between Windows and Unix-style operating systems. They make Linux much more secure when they are well used. However, they can also cause nightmare to the casual Linux administrator.

The first thing you need to know is that a Linux system has two way of classifying users. There is, of course, the user name, but there is also groups. Groups are, strictly speaking, only a way to share permissions between the users. For example, all the member of the admin group on your system is able to use the command sudo. As you probably know, sudo allows you to run a command as another user (by default, the root user).

Let me introduce you to your command-line friends that will help you to manage the permissions of your system.

  • adduser: This command let you add new user on your system. It can also add a user into a group.
  • addgroup: Its name says it all. This command let you add new group on your system.
  • chmod: I believe this is the most widely known Unix command. It is even a verb in the world of server-side technology, like PHP. This command let you alter the permissions of a file. It is a swiss-army knife. Learn it, and use it well.
  • chown: Also a very important command, chown can change the user and group ownership of a file.
  • chgrp: This is chown‘s little brother. Unlike chown, this command can only change the group ownership of a file.
  • groups: Somehow less important but still useful, groups shows you the groups you are a member of.
  • whoami: Don’t know why, but I love the name of this command. Anyway, this command tells you who you are.
  • who: This command shows you who is login on your system. I never use it, since I find w more useful for my usage.
  • w: And here our last little friend, the w command. It displays a list of the logged users like who, but also display their attached process and the uptime of the machine you’re on.

Obviously if you want to learn to use those commands well, you will need to do some homework and read their respective manual pages (with man <command>).

So, how permissions work? First, we need an example:

alex@helios /etc % ls -l
total 1548
-rw-r--r--  1 root   root      2584 2006-11-29 08:40 adduser.conf
drwxr-xr-x  4 root   root      4096 2006-12-13 10:46 apt
drwxr-xr-x  2 root   root      4096 2006-12-17 00:15 cron.d
drwxr-sr-t  5 cupsys lp        4096 2006-11-29 08:51 cups
-rw-r--r--  1 root   root       817 2006-11-29 08:39 fstab
-rw-r--r--  1 root   root       806 2006-12-17 00:15 group
-rw-r--r--  1 root   root      1430 2006-12-17 00:15 passwd
lrwxrwxrwx  1 root   root        13 2006-11-29 08:40 motd -> /var/run/motd
drwxr-xr-x  2 root   root      4096 2006-12-22 23:36 rc0.d
drwxr-xr-x  2 root   root      4096 2006-12-19 12:06 rc1.d
drwxr-xr-x  2 root   root      4096 2006-12-19 12:06 rc2.d
drwxr-xr-x  2 root   root      4096 2006-12-19 12:06 rc3.d
drwxr-xr-x  2 root   root      4096 2006-12-19 12:06 rc4.d
drwxr-xr-x  2 root   root      4096 2006-12-19 12:06 rc5.d
drwxr-xr-x  2 root   root      4096 2006-12-22 23:36 rc6.d
-rwxr-xr-x  1 root   root       306 2006-11-29 08:40 rc.local
-rwxr-xr-x  1 root   root       306 2006-11-29 08:40 rc.local
-rw-r-----  1 root   shadow     873 2006-12-17 00:15 shadow
-rw-r--r--  1 root   root       214 2006-12-02 13:27 shell
-r--r-----  1 root   root       403 2006-11-29 09:10 sudoers

Only the first, third and fourth column are interesting for us, right now. The first column gives us information about the file permissions. The third is the owner of the file and the fourth is the group.

So, what all this mess means? File permissions are like little switches you turn on and off. There is three types of permission: read, write, and execute. There’s also three types of ownership: owner (or user), group, and other. So, 3 times 3 equals 9 switches you can control.

That is exactly what we see in the first column. The first element of this column is the type of the file. A - means it’s a normal file; a d is for a directory and l is for a link pointing to a file. There is several other types of file, but they are much less useful to know for the casual Linux system administrator.

You probably figured that the rest are the permissions. Here a legend of the symbol I will use for the rest of this post:

u - owner
g - group
o - others

r - read
w - write
x - execute

t - file type

As you will see, there is nothing complicated about the first column in the output of the ls -l command. It’s a simple representation of the switches I mentioned earlier. So, let’s decrypt it:


That’s it. Just read it out loud: type, owner, group and others. So, if you see something like -rwxr-xr-x, you can read it as: “a normal file which the owner has the read, write and execute permission and which its group and others has the read and execute permission.” That is extremely verbose, but correct.

You can change the permissions with the chmod command:

alex@helios ~ % ls -l file
-rw-r--r-- 1 alex alex 0 2007-01-01 23:58 file
alex@helios ~ % chmod og+rw file
alex@helios ~ % ls -l file
-rw-rw-rw- 1 alex alex 0 2007-01-01 23:58 file

I won’t go in details here, because it’s quite simple to understand. If you want to know more, The info page of chmod is a great source of information (info coreutils ls).

If you already knew what are permissions, you are probably 1) rolling on the floor laughing, how I gone into the great details of that simple thing, or 2) grumbling that you want a refund because I wasted your bandwidth. So, hold on here the more advanced stuff.

You probably saw numerical (or should I say octal) permissions, like 777. But, do you actually know how to read them? For example, what 645 means? Hopefully, you aren’t trying to remember all of them. I going to give a trick.

As you probably know, each digit represents the permissions of one type of ownership (owner, group and other). One thing you need to know is they are not decimal digits; they are octal digits. So, something like 855 is not a valid permission.

Now, here one interesting property of octal digit: you can write them all as three bits (binary digits) number. Here the full list:

Octal   Binary
0       000
1       001
2       010
3       011
4       100
5       101
6       110
7       111

As you may know, bits are like switches you flip on and off. Sound familiar? Right, they are exactly like permissions. Now imagine that instead of letters, the permissions in the ls -l were shown as binary numbers:

alex@helios ~ % ls -l file
-110100100 1 alex alex 0 2007-01-01 23:58 file

110100100 is a perfectly legit binary number and in octal it is 644. So, what happens if we chmod our file to 644? You certainly deduced it:

alex@helios ~ % chmod 644 file
-rw-r--r-- 1 alex alex 0 2007-01-01 23:58 file

Pretty nice, eh? You been working with the binary system without knowing it. Back to our problem, you need to change the permissions of a file to 645. So, how do you calculate what it means? That is simple, now that you know it’s just a binary number:

Binary  Octal  English
100     4      read
010     2      write
001     1      execute


owner: 6 = 4+2 = read+write
group: 4 = 4   = read
other: 5 = 4+1 = read+execute

So, let’s check if we were right:

alex@helios ~ % chmod 645 file
alex@helios ~ % ls -l file
-rw-r--r-x 1 alex alex 0 2007-01-01 23:58 file

I bet you didn’t know it was that simple. Now, you can show to your geek friends how good you are by calculating any octal permissions in your head.

There is also some special permissions you can use too, like setuid, setgid, and sticky. I won’t cover them here, because they are pretty useless to the casual Linux system administrator.

I hope you enjoyed this introduction, because that’s all folks!

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