A Deep Dive Into Linux Permissions

Learn about the Linux permission model and how it affects your system’s security.

Welcome to the Linux Security Series! In this series, I will tackle the fundamentals of Linux security and how attackers attack Linux machines.

Before we dive into Linux systems security, it’s essential to understand the permissions model of Linux machines. Understanding how to manage permissions on Linux systems will help you understand attacks that exploit the permissions system, like most privilege escalation techniques. Let’s get started.

Linux File Permissions

Linux inherited the Unix model of file ownership and permissions. Every file and folder on the system has a set of permissions that specifies who is allowed to do what with that particular file.

There are three types of permissions: readwrite, and execute. A read permission on a file enables a user to read the contents of the file. A write permission allows a user to modify or delete the file. And an execute permission allows a user to run the file as a script or an executable.

You can view the permissions of a file or directory by using the ls -l command in a directory. You should see a line like this.


The first character indicates whether the item is a file or a directory. A dash means that the item is a file, whereas a d means it’s a directory. The next three characters are the permissions of the file’s owner. The owner is usually the user who created the file and has the most control over it. R indicates readw indicates write, and X indicates eXecute. And a dash indicates the lack of that permission. Let’s look at an example. Here, the owner can read, write, and execute the file.


And in Linux, users are sorted into user groups, and these groups often share file permissions. The next three characters are the permissions of the owner’s group. And the final three are the permissions for everyone else. This file’s permissions indicate that it is readable by everyone but only the owner can write or execute the file.

You can set file permissions by using the chmod command. In this command, you use the characters ug, and o to indicate the owner userowner group, and others. For example, to add execution permissions for a file’s owner group, you can use the command:

chmod g+x filepath

And to set execute permissions for everyone, you can use the command:

chmod +x filepath

On the other hand, when you want to remove a permission, you can swap out the plus sign for a minus sign. For example, this command will remove execute permissions for everyone.

chmod -x filepath

Special Permission Modes

There are also a few special things you can do with a file’s permissions.

The first thing you can do is set the setUID, or SUID bit. When the SUID bit is set, the file will always run as the user who owns the file and not as the user who started the program. For example, if an executable is owned by root, then the file will always run as the root user, regardless of who started the execution. You can tell if a file has SUID permissions if there is an s character instead of an x or a dash in the owner’s permissions.


The SUID bit has many common use cases. For example, since the ping command needs to be executed with root privileges, if you want normal users to use ping, you need to set the SUID bit for the ping executable. The SUID bit can be set by using the chmod command as well. This command will set the SUID bit on a file.

chmod u+s filepath

SetGID, or SGID, works similarly to SUID. When the setGID bit is set on a file, all users can execute the file with the owner group’s permissions. And if SGID is set on a directory, all the files created in that directory become accessible to all users in the parent directory’s owner group. You can tell if a file or directory has SGID permissions if there is an s character instead of an x or a dash in the owner group’s permissions.


The SGID bit can be set by using chmod as well. This command will set the SGID bit on a file.

chmod g+s filepath

There is also something called the sticky bit in a file’s permissions. If the sticky bit is set on a regular file, it makes subsequent execution of the program faster. However, the sticky bit is more commonly used on directories. It would mean the files or directories within that directory can only be moved or deleted by the file or directory’s owner or the superuser. This is commonly used for the temp directory (/tmp), which is designed to store temporary files created by individual users. You can tell if a file or directory has the sticky bit set by seeing if there is a t character instead of an x or a dash in the permissions string’s last character.


And you can add the sticky bit to a file or directory by using this command.

chmod +t filepath

I hope this helps you understand more clearly how Linux permissions are managed. Next time, we’ll dive into some privilege escalation techniques that allow attackers to access or execute files despite not having permission. See you next time!