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Special Permissions and Umask

The Linux permission model extends beyond the basic read (r), write (w), and execute (x) permissions that many of us are familiar with. The system also includes a set of "special" permissions: the setuid bit, the setgid bit, and the sticky bit. Although these are not directly manipulated using the umask command, understanding them is essential for anyone seeking to master Linux file permissions. This article will delve into what each of these special permissions is, why they are useful, and how they are related to the octal notation used in umask.

Context: Octal Notation and Umask

Before we get into the special permissions, let's quickly revisit the octal notation for permissions. In this numeric system, each digit represents a three-bit value that describes the permissions for the owner, group, and others, respectively. These are the permissions affected by the umask setting.

However, what's not immediately obvious is that there's also a fourth octal digit that represents these special permissions. This is often left as 0 in most cases and does not get set by the umask.

For example, a full permission set might look like this in octal notation: 4755.

Here, 4755 can be broken down as follows:

  • 4 corresponds to the special permissions
  • 7 corresponds to the owner's permissions (rwx)
  • 5 corresponds to the group's permissions (r-x)
  • 5 corresponds to others' permissions (r-x)

Special Permissions

Setuid Bit

The setuid (set user ID upon execution) bit allows a user to execute a file with the permissions of the file owner. When set, the setuid permission allows users to execute the binary as if they were the owner, even if they are not.


sudo chmod u+s /usr/bin/somefile


Setuid is particularly useful for executables that require elevated permissions to function, like passwd, which needs access to the /etc/shadow file to change user passwords.

Setgid Bit

Setgid (set group ID upon execution) works similarly to setuid but sets the group ID rather than the user ID when the file is executed. When set on a directory, any files created within that directory will inherit its group ownership.


sudo chmod g+s /usr/local/somefolder


This is useful for shared directories where it's essential that all created files belong to a specific group, ensuring that all group members can access them.

Sticky Bit

The sticky bit restricts file deletion. When the sticky bit is set on a directory, only the owner of the file within that directory can delete it. Others—even with write permissions on the directory—cannot delete the file.


sudo chmod +t /tmp


This is particularly useful in shared, writable directories like /tmp, where users shouldn't be able to delete files that belong to others.


Special permissions add an extra layer of control and flexibility to the Linux permissions model. While they don't directly interact with the umask setting, understanding them is crucial for comprehending the full scope of file and directory permissions on a Linux system. From the setuid and setgid bits that allow for privilege escalation and group ownership inheritance, to the sticky bit that protects against unauthorized file deletion, these special permissions serve key roles in a secure and functional Linux environment.

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