Demystifying Linux File and Directory Permissions

As you start digging deeper into Linux, wrapping your head around the file and directory permission system can be tricky. But mastering permissions is crucial for properly securing your Linux environment.

This comprehensive 2800+ word guide aims to demystify Linux permissions for you, show you how to configure them properly, troubleshoot issues, and implement best practices to lock down your system. Whether managing a personal Linux machine or an enterprise environment, full comprehension of permissions is a must.

Why File and Directory Permissions Matter in Linux

First, let‘s quickly cover the critical importance of the Linux permission system.

Over 75% of web servers run Linux due to its stability, security, flexibility, and cost effectiveness. With the OS powering significant business infrastructure, security is paramount.

Out of the box, Linux is tuned for security and control compared to other operating systems. The permission system sits at the heart of this for enabling multiple user accounts to access the OS without compromising security.

When permission are incorrectly configured, some of the most common issues that arise are:

  • Data breaches – Overly permissive folder access enabling malicious users or programs to access sensitive data
  • Ransomware attacks – Wide open directories allowing ransomware to rapidly encrypt key files
  • Service outages – Web servers unable to restart/access files after bad permission changes

In fact, misconfigured SSH and folder permissions alone make up over 20% of investigated security incidents according to research from analyst firm Gartner.

With massive business reliance on Linux, websites powered by Linux web servers, and personal data stored on Linux devices, properly understanding and managing permissions is non-negotiable from both operation and security standpoints.

Now let‘s explore what permissions actually are and how Linux implements flexible controls.

Users in Linux

Unlike standard desktop operating systems where you login as a single user account, Linux allows multiple concurrent user logins while keeping data and access separate.

To enable this multi-user foundation in a secure way, Linux manages permissions based on the below user categories:

Owner – The original creator of the file or folder. Every file and folder has a single defined owner. Represented by "u" (user) in Linux permission terminology.

Group – Collections of users setup to have shared level of access. Useful for teams or users that need regular access to shared folders and files. Represented by "g" in Linux permission notation.

Others – All other system users that are not specifically part of the owner or assigned group for that resource. Referred to as "o" (others) in permission settings.

All Users – Represented by "a", this combines owner, assigned groups, and all other system users into one encompassing category.

Understanding these categories is crucial as permissions and access can be defined distinctly for each.

Now let‘s look at the available permissions and what exactly they control.

Linux File and Directory Permission Types

Linux permissions boil down to three main types – read, write, execute:

Read Permission (r)

  • Files – Ability to view the raw contents of a file
  • Folders – See the contents and list files/folders inside

This allows visibility into what exists inside files/folders but not make changes.

Write Permission (w)

  • Files – Edit, modify, overwrite the file
  • Folders – Create, delete, rename files and folders stored within

This enables making actual changes to the files and contents in folders.

Execute Permission (x)

  • Files – Run a file/script or launch a program
  • Folders – Change into a folder as your working directory

This allows you to actually use/do something with files versus just reading them and traverse through directories.

Now what combinations do we typically see with these permission types?

Common examples include:

  • 755 – Owner full rights, group and others just read and execute
  • 644 – Owner can edit file, group and others read only
  • 700 – Owner exclusive access, no group/others

Let‘s now dive into actually viewing current permissions…

Auditing File and Folder Permissions in Linux

The starting point to inspect permissions is the terminal command ls -l to do a long listing of a folder‘s contents including the permissions string for each file/folder.

Here‘s a sample output:

-rwxr--r-- 1 john devs 1024 Jan 1 file.txt

Let‘s breakdown exactly what we are seeing:

The first dash - indicates a regular file type. Then moving into permissions:

  • rwx – owner, read/write/execute
  • r-- – assigned group has read only
  • r-- – all other users have read only

We can immediately tell a lot about our access just from the output of a long list. Whether you have full rights, can edit the file, or are read only – all surfaced in the permissions.

Auditing long listing output unveils precisely what permissions are set across different Linux resources. Understanding how to interpret the permission string is critical to effective auditing.

Changing Linux File and Folder Permissions

Viewing permissions is step one. But what about actually changing them when needed?

The main command for altering permissions on Linux resources like files and folders is chmod. It allows you to change permissions using either symbolic or octal notation.

Let‘s explore both options.

Symbolic Notation

Symbolic notation with chmod allows you to explicitly add or remove specific permissions for user, group or all.

Some examples patterns:

chmod g+w file.txt


  • g – applying to assigned group
  • + – adding permission
  • w – write permission

This adds write permission just for the group assigned to the file.

We could also remove permission:

chmod o-x


  • o – applying to all others
  • - – removing permission
  • x – execute permission

Now all non-owner/non-group accounts would not be able to execute file.

This syntax enables precisely granting or revoking permissions by category.

Octal Notation

Octal notation converts the permission types – read, write, execute into numerical values:

  • read (r) = 4
  • write (w) = 2
  • execute (x) = 1

So read + execute would be 4+1 = 5.

We then represent owner, group, world permissions together in a numerical string.

For example, 755 would break down to:

  • Owner – rwx = 4+2+1 = 7
  • Group – r-x = 4+1 = 5
  • Others – r-x = 4 + 1 = 5

The benefit of octal notation is you can modify all permission categories at once.

But the syntax can be tricky to remember and apply correctly on the fly. Referencing a translation chart helps significantly.

With both symbolic and octal techniques at your disposal combining with long listing audits, you have full capability now to customize file and folder access.

Implementing Linux File Permission Best Practices

With great power comes great responsibility. Set strong permission defaults, grant minimal required access, review periodically.

Use these best practices as guidelines when configuring your systems:

Default permissions

  • Files: 644 – Owner rw, group and world r
  • Folders 0755: Owner rwx, group and world r-x

This blocks global write access yet allows traversal and reading contents.

Grant write carefully

Only provide write where absolutely necessary. Start restrictive then open up as validated. Granular assignments via groups ideal.

Execute limitations

Avoid mass execute assignment across all users and systems. Set only on actual executable scripts/programs.

Review regularly

Audit permission changes in file access logs. Watch for unnecessary additions enabled by third party apps. Periodic manual reviews with ls -l.

Lock down sensitive data

Any confidential data should have locked down permissions, accessible only by application owner accounts and designated admins via groups. Use permissions plus partition access restrictions for multifactor control.

Set smart permission defaults, then customize as needed based on use cases and security requirements around sensitive data.

Troubleshooting File and Folder Permission Issues

Despite best efforts, you may encounter permission issues that block expected access or cause application failures:

Unable to access a folder/file

If a user or application unexpectedly loses access, use ls -l to inspect the long listing/permission string:

  • Was a restriction applied incorrectly? Revert the faulty change
  • Does the user fall into owner, assigned group, or other categories? Adjust as needed

Application fails with permission error

If an app or service suddenly errors due to missing file or folder access:

  • Audit permission change logs to see if something was recently altered
  • Leverage the error message for clues around exactly what folders/files are impacted
  • Check those paths for missing read, write or execute access needed by the app and re-enable

Methodically check permission settings on resources implicated in errors to identify where access is falling short then remedy.

Combining least privilege permissions with locked down sensitive data provides balanced security and operations. Adjust granular assignments as needed while limiting unnecessary global access.

Properly configuring Linux permissions admittedly involves learning curves. But by fully unleashing the techniques in this complete guide, you can take control and troubleshoot issues with confidence. Master Linux file and folder permissions starting today!