Access Control Lists

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Access control list (ACL) provides an additional, more flexible permission mechanism for file systems. It is designed to assist with UNIX file permissions. ACL allows you to give permissions for any user or group to any disk resource.


The acl package is a dependency of systemd, it should already be installed.


Enabling ACL

To enable ACL, the filesystem must be mounted with the acl option. You can use fstab to make it permanent on your system.

There is a possibility that the acl option is already active as default mount option on the filesystem. Btrfs does and Ext2/3/4 filesystems do too. Use the following command to check ext* formatted partitions for the option:

# tune2fs -l /dev/sdXY | grep "Default mount options:"
Default mount options:    user_xattr acl

Also check that the default mount option is not overridden, in such case you will see noacl in /proc/mounts in the relevant line.

You can set the default mount options of a filesystem using the tune2fs -o option partition command, for example:

# tune2fs -o acl /dev/sdXY

Using the default mount options instead of an entry in /etc/fstab is very useful for external drives, such partition will be mounted with acl option also on other Linux machines. There is no need to edit /etc/fstab on every machine.

  • acl is specified as default mount option when creating an ext2/3/4 filesystem. This is configured in /etc/mke2fs.conf.
  • The default mount options are not listed in /proc/mounts.


The ACL can be modified using the setfacl command.

Tip: You can list file/directory permission changes without modifying the permissions (i.e. dry-run) by appending the --test flag.

To set permissions for a user (user is either the user name or ID):

# setfacl -m "u:user:permissions" <file/dir>

To set permissions for a group (group is either the group name or ID):

# setfacl -m "g:group:permissions" <file/dir>

To set permissions for others:

# setfacl -m "other:permissions" <file/dir>

To allow all newly created files or directories to inherit entries from the parent directory (this will not affect files which will be copied into the directory):

# setfacl -dm "entry" <dir>

To remove a specific entry:

# setfacl -x "entry" <file/dir>

To remove the default entries:

# setfacl -k <file/dir>

To remove all entries (entries of the owner, group and others are retained):

# setfacl -b <file/dir>
Note: The default behavior of setfacl is to recalculate the ACL mask entry, unless a --mask entry was explicitly given. The mask entry is set to the union of all permissions of the owning group, and all named user and group entries (These are exactly the entries affected by the mask entry).
Tip: To apply operations to all files and directories recursively, append the -R argument.

Show ACL

To show permissions, use:

# getfacl <file/dir>


Set all permissions for user johny to file named "abc":

# setfacl -m "u:johny:rwx" abc

Check permissions

# getfacl abc
# file: abc
# owner: someone
# group: someone

Change permissions for user johny:

# setfacl -m "u:johny:r-x" abc

Check permissions

# getfacl abc
# file: abc
# owner: someone
# group: someone

Remove all extended ACL entries:

# setfacl -b abc

Check permissions

# getfacl abc
# file: abc
# owner: someone
# group: someone

Output of ls command

You will notice that there is an ACL for a given file because it will exhibit a + (plus sign) after its Unix permissions in the output of ls -l.

$ ls -l /dev/audio
crw-rw----+ 1 root audio 14, 4 nov.   9 12:49 /dev/audio
$ getfacl /dev/audio
getfacl: Removing leading '/' from absolute path names
# file: dev/audio
# owner: root
# group: audio

Granting execution permissions for private files to a web server

The following technique describes how a process like a web server can be granted access to files that reside in a user's home directory, without compromising security by giving the whole world access.

In the following we assume that the web server runs as the user http and grant it access to geoffrey's home directory /home/geoffrey.

The first step is granting execution permissions for the user http:

# setfacl -m "u:http:--x" /home/geoffrey
Note: Execution permissions to a directory are necessary for a process to list the directory's content.

Since the user http is now able to access files in /home/geoffrey, others no longer need access:

# chmod o-rx /home/geoffrey

Use getfacl to verify the changes:

$ getfacl /home/geoffrey
getfacl: Removing leading '/' from absolute path names
# file: home/geoffrey
# owner: geoffrey
# group: geoffrey

As the above output shows, other's no longer have any permissions, but the user http is still able to access the files, thus security might be considered increased.

Note: One may need to give write access for the user http on specific directories and/or files:
# setfacl -dm "u:http:rwx" /home/geoffrey/project1/cache

See also