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Understanding File Access Rights in Linux: Read, Write, and Execute

In Linux, understanding file permissions is critical, whether you are a system administrator managing users and groups or an end-user who wants to secure data. This article aims to provide a comprehensive overview of file access rights in Linux, focusing on the three main permissions: read, write, and execute.

What are File Access Rights?

Linux uses a permission model to secure files and directories. Each file or directory has an associated set of permissions, which can be set for three different types of users:

  1. Owner: The user who owns the file or directory.
  2. Group: The set of users who belong to the file's or directory's group.
  3. Everybody Else: Users who do not own the file and are not part of the group.

For each of these user types, permissions are defined in three categories:

  1. Read (r)
  2. Write (w)
  3. Execute (x)

Table of File Attributes

ReadrGrants permission to read a file or directory listing.
WritewAllows writing to a file or creating/deleting files in a directory.
ExecutexGrants permission to execute a file or enter a directory.

How to Read File Permissions?

You can view file permissions using the ls -l command in the terminal, which will show you a list of files and directories with their associated permissions.

For example, the output might look like this:

-rwxrw-r-- 1 alice users 2048 Sep 1 10:30 example.txt

Here's how to interpret this:

  • The first character - indicates that this is a file. (A d would indicate a directory.)
  • The next three characters rwx are the permissions for the Owner (Read, Write, Execute).
  • The next three rw- are the permissions for the Group (Read, Write, No Execute).
  • The last three r-- are the permissions for Everybody Else (Read, No Write, No Execute).

How Permissions Differ Between Files and Directories

The read (r), write (w), and execute (x) permissions have different implications depending on whether they are set for a file or a directory. Understanding these nuances is crucial for proper system administration and secure file management.

Table: Differences in Permissions for Files vs. Directories

PermissionFor FilesFor Directories
Read (r)Allows the file contents to be read.Allows viewing of the directory contents (ls).
Write (w)Allows modification of the file.Allows adding, deleting, and renaming files within the directory.
Execute (x)Allows the file to be run as a program.Allows entering into the directory (cd).

Detailed Explanation

  1. Read (r)

    • Files: A read permission on a file means you can open and read the content of the file.
    • Directories: A read permission on a directory means you can list its contents but not interact further unless you also have execute permission.
  2. Write (w)

    • Files: A write permission means you can modify the file's content, but you'll also need read permission if you intend to change only parts of it. Without read permission, you'd need to overwrite the file entirely.
    • Directories: A write permission allows you to add, remove, or rename files within the directory. Note that deleting a file from a directory requires write permission on the directory, not the file itself.
  3. Execute (x)

    • Files: An execute permission means the file can be run as a program ( assuming it is a type of file that can be executed).
    • Directories: Execute permission allows you to change into the directory and interact with its contents provided you also have read permissions.


  1. Files

    • If a file has -rw-r--r--, then the owner can read and write but not execute the file, and others can only read the file.
    • If a file has -rwxr-xr-x, then the owner can read, write, and execute, while others can read and execute but not write.
  2. Directories

    • If a directory has drwxr-xr-x, then the owner can list, add, or remove files and change into the directory, while others can only list the contents and change into it but cannot add or remove files.

Node Attributes

Understanding Entity Types in Linux: Files, Directories, and More

In addition to the permissions model, Linux also provides a way to distinguish between various types of entities (or 'nodes') that can exist in the filesystem. This information is crucial for understanding exactly what you're dealing with when you see a list of files and directories.

The first character in the permission string, as displayed by the ls -l command, indicates the type of the entity. Below are the most commonly seen attributes.

Table: Filesystem Entity Types

-Regular file - This is your standard data file that can contain text, data, or program information.
dDirectory - Directories are essentially lists of files and allow you to organize your file system.
lSymbolic link - A symbolic link is a pointer to another file or directory. It can be used just like the original file or directory but doesn't contain the actual data of the original file.
cCharacter device file - These are specialized files that help facilitate I/O with device types that accept data character-by-character, like terminals and modems.
bBlock device file - Similar to character device files but are used for devices that handle data in blocks, like hard drives.

Device Types

Block devices and character devices are types of special files that represent hardware devices in the Linux filesystem. They function as interfaces between the device drivers and user-space applications. Here are some examples:

Block Devices (b)

Block devices are storage devices that read and write data in fixed-size blocks. They are well-suited for random access and can buffer data, which makes them ideal for storing files. Typical block devices include:

  1. Hard Disk Drives (HDDs): The most common form of storage device, used for long-term storage of data.

  2. Solid-State Drives (SSDs): Similar to HDDs, but faster and more durable, although generally more expensive.

  3. USB Drives: Portable storage devices that are easy to connect and disconnect from a system.

  4. CD-ROM/DVD-ROM: Optical storage devices that are generally read-only.

  5. SD Cards: Used in cameras, phones, and some low-cost computing devices like Raspberry Pi.

In Linux, block devices often appear in the /dev directory with names like /dev/sda for the first hard disk, /dev/sdb for the second, and so on.

Character Devices (c)

Character devices are used for devices that read and write data character by character in a stream. These are typically not suitable for storing data but are ideal for real-time data transfer, and they are not buffered. Examples include:

  1. Terminals and Terminal Emulators: These provide a text-based interface to the computer.

  2. Serial Ports: Used for external communications via RS-232 standard, etc.

  3. Keyboards: Input is read one character at a time.

  4. Mice: Though the data from a mouse might be more complex than a single character, it's still treated as a stream of real-time event data.

  5. Sound Cards: Used for audio data, which can be read or written character by character in real-time.

In Linux, character devices also appear in the /dev directory, with names like /dev/tty for terminals, /dev/ttyS0 for the first serial port, and /dev/audio for sound devices.

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