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The /etc/passwd File

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On most Unix systems the user accounts are listed in the database file /etc/passwd; the corresponding passwords for these accounts are kept in a file named /etc/shadow, /etc/security/passwd, or /etc/master.passwd. To improve lookup speed, some systems compile the password file into a compact index file named something like /etc/pwd.db, which is used instead.

Here is an example of an /etc/passwd  file from a Red Hat 5.8 system containing a variety of system and ordinary users:

cat /etc/passwd
ftp:x:14:50:FTP User:/var/ftp:/sbin/nologin
nscd:x:28:28:NSCD Daemon:/:/sbin/nologin
vcsa:x:69:69:virtual console memory owner:/dev:/sbin/nologin
dbus:x:81:81:System message bus:/:/sbin/nologin
avahi:x:70:70:Avahi daemon:/:/sbin/nologin
rpc:x:32:32:Portmapper RPC user:/:/sbin/nologin
sshd:x:74:74:Privilege-separated SSH:/var/empty/sshd:/sbin/nologin
oprofile:x:16:16:Special user account to be used by OProfile:/home/oprofile:/sbin/nologin
rpcuser:x:29:29:RPC Service User:/var/lib/nfs:/sbin/nologin
nfsnobody:x:65534:65534:Anonymous NFS User:/var/lib/nfs:/sbin/nologin
xfs:x:43:43:X Font Server:/etc/X11/fs:/sbin/nologin
haldaemon:x:68:68:HAL daemon:/:/sbin/nologin
sabayon:x:86:86:Sabayon user:/home/sabayon:/sbin/nologin

There is generally nothing special about any Unix account name. All Unix privileges are determined by the UID (and sometimes the group ID, or GID), and not directly by the account name. Thus, an account with name root and UID 1005 would have no special privileges, but an account named mortimer with UID 0 would be a superuser.

In general, you should avoid creating users with a UID of 0 other than root, and you should avoid using the name root for a regular user account. In this book, we will use the terms "root" and "superuser" interchangeably to mean a UID of 0.

Unix keeps the mapping between usernames and UIDs in the file /etc/passwd. Each user's UID is stored in the field after the one containing the user's encrypted password. The UID is the actual information that the operating system uses to identify the user; usernames are provided merely as a convenience for humans. If two users are assigned the same UID, Unix views them as the same user, even if they have different usernames and passwords. Two users with the same UID can freely read and delete each other's files and can kill each other's running programs. Giving two users the same UID is almost always a bad idea; it is better to create multiple users and put them in the same group, as we will see later.

Conversely, files can be owned by a UID that is not listed in /etc/passwd  as having an associated username. This is also a bad idea. If a user is added to /etc/passwd  in the future with that UID, that user will suddenly become the owner of the files.

Groups and Group Identifiers (GIDs)

Every Unix user belongs to one or more groups. As with user accounts, groups have both a group name and a group identification number (GID). GID values are also historically 16-bit integers, but many systems now use 32-bit integers for these, too.

As the name implies, Unix groups are used to group users together. As with usernames, group names and numbers are assigned by the system administrator when each user's account is created. Groups can be used by the system administrator to designate sets of users who are allowed to read, write, and/or execute specific files, directories, or devices.

Each user belongs to a primary group  that is stored in the /etc/passwd  file. The GID of the user's primary group follows the user's UID. Historically, every Unix user was placed in the group users, which had a GID of 100. These days, however, most Unix sites place each account in its own group. This results in decreased sharing but somewhat greater security.

The advantage of assigning each user his own group is that it allows users to have a unified umask of 007 in all instances. When users wish to restrict access of a file or directory to themselves, they leave the group set to their individual group. When they wish to open the file or directory to members of their workgroup or project, all they need to do is to change the file's or directory's group accordingly.

Consider, again, our /etc/passwd  example:

rachel:x:181:181:Rachel Cohen:/u/rachel:/bin/ksh

In this example, Rachel's primary GID is 181.

Groups provide a handy mechanism for treating a number of users in a certain way. For example, you might want to set up a group for a team of students working on a project so that students in the group, but nobody else, can read and modify the team's files.

Groups can also be used to restrict access to sensitive information or specially licensed applications to a particular set of users: for example, many Unix computers are set up so that only users who belong to the kmem group can examine the operating system's kernel memory. The operator group is commonly used to allow only specific users to run the tape backup system, which may have "read" access to the system's raw disk devices. And a sources group might be limited to people who have signed nondisclosure forms so they can view the source code for particular software.

Some special versions of Unix support mandatory access controls (MAC), which have controls based on data labeling instead of, or in addition to, the traditional Unix discretionary access controls (DAC). MAC-based systems do not use traditional Unix groups. Instead, the GID values and the /etc/group  file may be used to specify security access control labeling or to point to capability lists. If you are using one of these systems, you should consult the vendor documentation to ascertain what the actual format and use of these values might be.

The /etc/group file

The /etc/group  file contains the database that lists every group on your computer and its corresponding GID. Its format is similar to the format used by the /etc/passwd  file.   

[0]bezroun@lustwz54: $ cat /etc/group

One important group is  the Wheel Group.

Field contents



Group name


Group's "password" (obsolite)


Group's GID


List of the users who are in the group


Most versions of Unix use the wheel group as the list of all of the computer's system administrators (in this case, bezroun and the root user are the only members). On some systems, the group has a GID of 10; on other systems, the group has a GID of 15. Unlike a UID of 0, a GID of 0 is usually not significant. However, the name wheel is very significant: on many systems the use of the su command to invoke superuser privileges is restricted to users who are members of a group named wheel.

Linux and Solaris have an id command that offers more detailed UIDs, GIDs, and group lists:

Group Passwords

The newgrp command is used to change the user's active group. This is useful when a user wants to create files owned by a group other than his default group.

$ id
uid=1001(alansz) gid=20(users)
$ newgrp project
$ id
uid=1001(alansz) gid=100(project)

Solaris and other versions of Unix derived from AT&T SVR4 allow users to use newgrp to switch to a group that they are not a member of if the group is equipped with a group password:

$ newgrp fiction
password: rates34

The user is now free to exercise all of the rights and privileges of the fiction group instead of his default group.

The password in the /etc/group  file is interpreted exactly like the passwords in the /etc/passwd  file. However, most systems do not have a program to install or change the passwords in this file. To set a group password, you must first assign it to a user with the passwd command, then use a text editor to copy the encrypted password out of the /etc/passwd  file into the /etc/group  file. Alternatively, you can encode the password using the /usr/lib/makekey program (if present) and edit the result into the /etc/group  file in the appropriate place.

Group passwords are rarely used and can represent a security vulnerability, as an attacker can put a password on a critical group as a way of creating a back door for future access.


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