File System Manipulation

In this chapter, we discuss general file system manipulation, with a focus on access files and directories to which an other, potentially untrusted user has write access.

Temporary files are covered in their own chapter, Temporary Files.

Working with Files and Directories Owned by Other Users

Sometimes, it is necessary to operate on files and directories owned by other (potentially untrusted) users. For example, a system administrator could remove the home directory of a user, or a package manager could update a file in a directory which is owned by an application-specific user. This differs from accessing the file system as a specific user; see Accessing the File System as a Different User.

Accessing files across trust boundaries faces several challenges, particularly if an entire directory tree is being traversed:

  1. Another user might add file names to a writable directory at any time. This can interfere with file creation and the order of names returned by readdir.

  2. Merely opening and closing a file can have side effects. For instance, an automounter can be triggered, or a tape device rewound. Opening a file on a local file system can block indefinitely, due to mandatory file locking, unless the O_NONBLOCK flag is specified.

  3. Hard links and symbolic links can redirect the effect of file system operations in unexpected ways. The O_NOFOLLOW and AT_SYMLINK_NOFOLLOW variants of system calls only affected final path name component.

  4. The structure of a directory tree can change. For example, the parent directory of what used to be a subdirectory within the directory tree being processed could suddenly point outside that directory tree.

Files should always be created with the O_CREAT and O_EXCL flags, so that creating the file will fail if it already exists. This guards against the unexpected appearance of file names, either due to creation of a new file, or hard-linking of an existing file. In multi-threaded programs, rather than manipulating the umask, create the files with mode 000 if possible, and adjust it afterwards with fchmod.

To avoid issues related to symbolic links and directory tree restructuring, the “at” variants of system calls have to be used (that is, functions like openat, fchownat, fchmodat, and unlinkat, together with O_NOFOLLOW or AT_SYMLINK_NOFOLLOW). Path names passed to these functions must have just a single component (that is, without a slash). When descending, the descriptors of parent directories must be kept open. The missing opendirat function can be emulated with openat (with an O_DIRECTORY flag, to avoid opening special files with side effects), followed by fdopendir.

If the “at” functions are not available, it is possible to emulate them by changing the current directory. (Obviously, this only works if the process is not multi-threaded.) fchdir has to be used to change the current directory, and the descriptors of the parent directories have to be kept open, just as with the “at”-based approach. chdir("…​") is unsafe because it might ascend outside the intended directory tree.

This “at” function emulation is currently required when manipulating extended attributes. In this case, the lsetxattr function can be used, with a relative path name consisting of a single component. This also applies to SELinux contexts and the lsetfilecon function.

Currently, it is not possible to avoid opening special files and changes to files with hard links if the directory containing them is owned by an untrusted user. (Device nodes can be hard-linked, just as regular files.) fchmodat and fchownat affect files whose link count is greater than one. But opening the files, checking that the link count is one with fstat, and using fchmod and fchown on the file descriptor may have unwanted side effects, due to item 2 above. When creating directories, it is therefore important to change the ownership and permissions only after it has been fully created. Until that point, file names are stable, and no files with unexpected hard links can be introduced.

Similarly, when just reading a directory owned by an untrusted user, it is currently impossible to reliably avoid opening special files.

There is no workaround against the instability of the file list returned by readdir. Concurrent modification of the directory can result in a list of files being returned which never actually existed on disk.

Hard links and symbolic links can be safely deleted using unlinkat without further checks because deletion only affects the name within the directory tree being processed.

Accessing the File System as a Different User

This section deals with access to the file system as a specific user. This is different from accessing files and directories owned by a different, potentially untrusted user; see Accessing the File System as a Different User.

One approach is to spawn a child process which runs under the target user and group IDs (both effective and real IDs). Note that this child process can block indefinitely, even when processing regular files only. For example, a special FUSE file system could cause the process to hang in uninterruptible sleep inside a stat system call.

An existing process could change its user and group ID using setfsuid and setfsgid. (These functions are preferred over seteuid and setegid because they do not allow the impersonated user to send signals to the process.) These functions are not thread safe. In multi-threaded processes, these operations need to be performed in a single-threaded child process. Unexpected blocking may occur as well.

It is not recommended to try to reimplement the kernel permission checks in user space because the required checks are complex. It is also very difficult to avoid race conditions during path name resolution.

File System Limits

For historical reasons, there are preprocessor constants such as PATH_MAX, NAME_MAX. However, on most systems, the length of canonical path names (absolute path names with all symbolic links resolved, as returned by realpath or canonicalize_file_name) can exceed PATH_MAX bytes, and individual file name components can be longer than NAME_MAX. This is also true of the _PC_PATH_MAX and _PC_NAME_MAX values returned by pathconf, and the f_namemax member of struct statvfs. Therefore, these constants should not be used. This is also reason why the readdir_r should never be used (instead, use readdir).

You should not write code in a way that assumes that there is an upper limit on the number of subdirectories of a directory, the number of regular files in a directory, or the link count of an inode.

File system features

Not all file systems support all features. This makes it very difficult to write general-purpose tools for copying files. For example, a copy operation intending to preserve file permissions will generally fail when copying to a FAT file system.

  • Some file systems are case-insensitive. Most should be case-preserving, though.

  • Name length limits vary greatly, from eight to thousands of bytes. Path length limits differ as well. Most systems impose an upper bound on path names passed to the kernel, but using relative path names, it is possible to create and access files whose absolute path name is essentially of unbounded length.

  • Some file systems do not store names as fairly unrestricted byte sequences, as it has been traditionally the case on GNU systems. This means that some byte sequences (outside the POSIX safe character set) are not valid names. Conversely, names of existing files may not be representable as byte sequences, and the files are thus inaccessible on GNU systems. Some file systems perform Unicode canonicalization on file names. These file systems preserve case, but reading the name of a just-created file using readdir might still result in a different byte sequence.

  • Permissions and owners are not universally supported (and SUID/SGID bits may not be available). For example, FAT file systems assign ownership based on a mount option, and generally mark all files as executable. Any attempt to change permissions would result in an error.

  • Non-regular files (device nodes, FIFOs) are not generally available.

  • Only on some file systems, files can have holes, that is, not all of their contents is backed by disk storage.

  • ioctl support (even fairly generic functionality such as FIEMAP for discovering physical file layout and holes) is file-system-specific.

  • Not all file systems support extended attributes, ACLs and SELinux metadata. Size and naming restriction on extended attributes vary.

  • Hard links may not be supported at all (FAT) or only within the same directory (AFS). Symbolic links may not be available, either. Reflinks (hard links with copy-on-write semantics) are still very rare. Recent systems restrict creation of hard links to users which own the target file or have read/write access to it, but older systems do not.

  • Renaming (or moving) files using rename can fail (even when stat indicates that the source and target directories are located on the same file system). This system call should work if the old and new paths are located in the same directory, though.

  • Locking semantics vary among file systems. This affects advisory and mandatory locks. For example, some network file systems do not allow deleting files which are opened by any process.

  • Resolution of time stamps varies from two seconds to nanoseconds. Not all time stamps are available on all file systems. File creation time (birth time) is not exposed over the stat/fstat interface, even if stored by the file system.

Checking Free Space

The statvfs and fstatvfs functions allow programs to examine the number of available blocks and inodes, through the members f_bfree, f_bavail, f_ffree, and f_favail of struct statvfs. Some file systems return fictional values in the f_ffree and f_favail fields, so the only reliable way to discover if the file system still has space for a file is to try to create it. The f_bfree field should be reasonably accurate, though.