getcap, setcap and file capabilities


Intro to Linux capabilities


See also: man capabilities

Linux’s thread/process privilege checking is based on capabilities. They’re flags to the thread that indicate what kind of additional privileges they’re allowed to use. By default, root has all of these.


 Override read/write/execute permission checks (full filesystem access).
 Only override reading files and opening/listing directories (full filesystem READ access).
CAP_KILL:Can send any signal to any process (such as sig kill).
CAP_SYS_CHROOT:Ability to call chroot().

And so on.

These are useful when you want to restrict your own processes after performing privileged operations. For example, after setting up chroot and binding to a socket. (However, it’s still more limited than seccomp or SELinux, which are based on system calls instead).

Setting/Getting capabilities from userland

You can force capabilities upon programs using setcap, and query these using getcap.

For example, on many Linux distributions you’ll find ping with cap_net_raw (which allows ping to create raw sockets). This means ping doesn’t need to run as root (via setuid, in general) anymore:

getcap /sbin/ping
/sbin/ping = cap_net_raw+ep

This has initially been set by a user with cap_setfcap (root has it by default), via this command:

setcap cap_net_raw+ep /sbin/ping

You can find the list of capabilities via:

man capabilities

The “+ep” means you’re adding the capability (“-” would remove it) as Effective and Permitted.

There are 3 modes:

  • e: Effective

    This means the capability is “activated”.

  • p: Permitted

    This means the capability can be used/is allowed.

  • i: Inherited

    The capability is kept by child/subprocesses upon execve() for example.

More info:

man cap_from_text


While capabilities are relatively well known by Linux C programmers (generally used either in kernel for limiting access to resources, either in user space to drop capabilities while still running as root user) - they’re obscure to most non-programmers.

It’s important to know about their existence for forensic purposes, for example - since those programs have a subset of what’s available to a setuid(0) (i.e. root) program.

Here’s some more usage examples:

  • Make a chroot wrapper that run as regular user.
  • Have a program that can check for all files on the system without being root (such as a scanner for vulnerable software or root kits).
  • Enable/Disable use of chattr.
  • Program that can handle netfiler and network config without running a root.
  • Create a socket < 1024 without running as root.
  • Use ptrace on all processes as regular user (for example, by setting this to gdb).