Chapter 5. Access Control Lists in Linux


5.1. Traditional File Permissions
5.2. Advantages of ACLs
5.3. Definitions
5.4. Handling ACLs
5.5. ACL Support in Applications
5.6. For More Information


POSIX ACLs (access control lists) can be used as an expansion of the traditional permission concept for file system objects. With ACLs, permissions can be defined more flexibly than the traditional permission concept allows.

The term POSIX ACL suggests that this is a true POSIX (portable operating system interface) standard. The respective draft standards POSIX 1003.1e and POSIX 1003.2c have been withdrawn for several reasons. Nevertheless, ACLs as found on many systems belonging to the UNIX family are based on these drafts and the implementation of file system ACLs as described in this chapter follows these two standards as well. They can be viewed at

5.1. Traditional File Permissions

The basics of traditional Linux file permissions are explained in Section 3.2, “Users and Access Permissions” (↑Start-Up). More advanced features are the setuid, setgid, and sticky bit.

5.1.1. The setuid Bit

In certain situations, the access permissions may be too restrictive. Therefore, Linux has additional settings that enable the temporary change of the current user and group identity for a specific action. For example, the passwd program normally requires root permissions to access /etc/passwd. This file contains some important information, like the home directories of users and user and group IDs. Thus, a normal user would not be able to change passwd, because it would be too dangerous to grant all users direct access to this file. A possible solution to this problem is the setuid mechanism. setuid (set user ID) is a special file attribute that instructs the system to execute programs marked accordingly under a specific user ID. Consider the passwd command:

-rwsr-xr-x  1 root shadow 80036 2004-10-02 11:08 /usr/bin/passwd

You can see the s that denotes that the setuid bit is set for the user permission. By means of the setuid bit, all users starting the passwd command execute it as root.

5.1.2. The setgid Bit

The setuid bit applies to users. However, there is also an equivalent property for groups: the setgid bit. A program for which this bit was set runs under the group ID under which it was saved, no matter which user starts it. Therefore, in a directory with the setgid bit, all newly created files and subdirectories are assigned to the group to which the directory belongs. Consider the following example directory:

drwxrws--- 2 tux archive 48 Nov 19 17:12  backup

You can see the s that denotes that the setgid bit is set for the group permission. The owner of the directory and members of the group archive may access this directory. Users that are not members of this group are “mapped” to the respective group. The effective group ID of all written files will be archive. For example, a backup program that runs with the group ID archive is able to access this directory even without root privileges.

5.1.3. The Sticky Bit

There is also the sticky bit. It makes a difference whether it belongs to an executable program or a directory. If it belongs to a program, a file marked in this way is loaded to RAM to avoid needing to get it from the hard disk each time it is used. This attribute is used rarely, because modern hard disks are fast enough. If this bit is assigned to a directory, it prevents users from deleting each other's files. Typical examples include the /tmp and /var/tmp directories:

drwxrwxrwt 2 root root 1160 2002-11-19 17:15 /tmp