3.2 Permissions

FreeBSD, being a direct descendant of BSD Unix, is based on several key Unix concepts. The first, and most pronounced, is that FreeBSD is a multi-user operating system. The system can handle several users all working simultaneously on completely unrelated tasks. The system is responsible for properly sharing and managing requests for hardware devices, peripherals, memory, and CPU time evenly to each user.

Because the system is capable of supporting multiple users, everything the system manages has a set of permissions governing who can read, write, and execute the resource. These permissions are stored as two octets broken into three pieces, one for the owner of the file, one for the group that the file belongs to, and one for everyone else. This numerical representation works like this:

Value Permission Directory Listing
0 No read, no write, no execute ---
1 No read, no write, execute --x
2 No read, write, no execute -w-
3 No read, write, execute -wx
4 Read, no write, no execute r--
5 Read, no write, execute r-x
6 Read, write, no execute rw-
7 Read, write, execute rwx

You can use the -l command line argument to ls(1) to view a long directory listing that includes a column with information about a file's permissions for the owner, group, and everyone else. Here's how the first column of ls -l is broken up:


The first character, from left to right, is a special character that tells if this is a regular file, a directory, a special character or block device, a socket, or any other special pseudo-file device. The next three characters, designated as rw- gives the permissions for the owner of the file. The next three characters, r-- gives the permissions for the group that the file belongs to. The final three characters, r--, gives the permissions for the rest of the world. A dash means that the permission is turned off. In the case of this file, the permissions are set so the owner can read and write to the file, the group can read the file, and the rest of the world can only read the file. According to the table above, the permissions for this file would be 644, where each digit represents the three parts of the file's permission.

This is all well and good, but how does the system control permissions on devices? FreeBSD actually treats most hardware devices as a file that programs can open, read, and write data to just like any other file. These special device files are stored on the /dev directory.

Directories are also treated as files. They have read, write, and execute permissions. The executable bit for a directory has a slightly different meaning than that of files. When a directory is marked executable, it means it can be searched into, for example, a directory listing can be done in that directory.

There are more to permissions, but they are primarily used in special circumstances such as setuid binaries and sticky directories. If you want more information on file permissions and how to set them, be sure to look at the chmod(1) man page.

This, and other documents, can be downloaded from ftp://ftp.FreeBSD.org/pub/FreeBSD/doc/.

For questions about FreeBSD, read the documentation before contacting <questions@FreeBSD.org>.
For questions about this documentation, e-mail <doc@FreeBSD.org>.