SELinux/Quick introduction

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SELinux is an access control mechanism, supported through the Linux kernel, that works alongside the Linux regular access controls. But unlike the regular access controls, it is a mandatory access control system, ensuring that users cannot work around the rules set by the administrator. But before we get into the gritty details of SELinux, let's first see how the regular access controls on a Linux system work. Then, we continue with the SELinux features one by one, explaining most of the models supported by SELinux.

Regular Linux access control

Assume a user wants to execute a script, then the Linux discretionary access control system will check the information of the process that the user is running (which is most likely a shell process) and that of the script itself to decide if the execution can go through.

Schematic overview of a script execution

In the example above, Linux will allow the execution, because the permissions on the file (which are -rwxr-xr-x) allow other users to execute it.

The discretionary part comes from the fact that the owner of the file can decide on the access rights to the file. Even if the file wasn't executable at first, the user could easily assign the proper permission set to the file:

user $chmod o+x /path/to/script

On a multi-user system, a user will be able to share whatever resources he has access to with the other users, as well as enable any action (such as writing to or executing the files). All he needs to do is to open up the rights to these resources for other users (or if they all share the same group, to the group owner). And although the example of "sharing" files is a simple one, it can go further than that. In some enterprises, access to particular software on a system is governed through the group membership. Developers might be assigned a developer group, allowing them access to the system compiler. But once a developer can access the compiler, he can easily also copy all compiler files into his own directory and share that directory with other, non-developer users who can then call the compiler as well.

The discretionary part of the Linux permission system goes further than just users. Services too, such as the Apache web server, can decide how they open up their resources. And although it might not be by design, a malfunctioning service might expose sensitive data to users through this aspect.

Mandatory access control

With a mandatory access control, the permissions are not governed by the owner of the resource, nor can they be worked around by users. Instead, they are set in stone by the security administrator. In SELinux, this is done through the SELinux policy that is loaded at the start of the system.

Schematic overview of a script execution under SELinux

The interaction shown is still the same, but an additional set of components is added: the SELinux subsystem (running in the Linux kernel) and the policy.

SELinux security subsystem

SELinux is a security subsystem that works inside the Linux kernel. It uses Linux Security Modules (LSM) hooks provided by the Linux kernel developers to intercept any call and check if the call is allowed or not. If it is, then the activity can go through. Otherwise, a Permission Denied error is returned to the system and a denial message is sent to the audit subsystem. This way, administrators can investigate denials (as they usually reflect unwanted behavior being exerted on the system) and rest assured that security rules cannot be worked around.

It is important to understand that the SELinux permission check happens after the Linux DAC check. In other words, SELinux cannot be used to override access controls on the system. If the regular permission system disallows an activity, then SELinux is not even consulted.

Context based approach

SELinux uses contexts to identify resources. In the example, two contexts take part in the activity:

  1. the context of the user process (such as a shell), which is user_u:user_r:user_t
  2. the context of the target file, which is system_u:object_r:lib_t

A context in SELinux consists out of 3, sometimes 4 parts:

  1. it starts with a SELinux user (which is not the same as a Linux user),
  2. followed by the SELinux role,
  3. followed by the SELinux type,
  4. and then optionally followed by a sensitivity

Or, in a regular schematic representation:

Schematic overview of a SELinux context

Each field is used by SELinux for deciding access controls. Most of the rules however are made for the SELinux type of a context, which is why contexts are often reduced to just the type.

SELinux policy

The SELinux security subsystem checks any access attempt through the policy. SELinux uses a deny-by-default setup, so it looks for explicit allow statements on the SELinux type. In our case, it looks for an allow rule that allows user_t execute rights on a file resource with the lib_t type assigned to it:

CODE Small set of SELinux policy rules
allow user_t bin_t:file { execute };
allow user_t user_bin_t:file { execute };

In our example, it doesn't find such a rule, so it denies the execution attempt.

The SELinux policy is what defines the behavior of the SELinux subsystem. Widely different policies will result in different behavior on the system. And the term behavior here is well chosen: the policy is a write-down of what acceptable, normalized behavior is. It is a full description of how processes on the system are allowed to behave.

The policy is separate from the SELinux subsystem; an update to the policy does not require kernel rebuilds or application updates. Instead, policies are built into binary policy packages that can be dynamically loaded, similar to how kernel modules can be loaded.

Access controls

The SELinux subsystem has various access controls in place. One of them we roughly saw, which is called the type enforcement. Next to this, SELinux also supports role-based access control and user-based access control. The last access control system we'll briefly cover is the multi-level security model.

Type enforcement

The type enforcement access control system focuses on the SELinux type within a SELinux context. It is also what most of the SELinux rules are written for and covers the vast majority of SELinux rules in a SELinux policy.

The access check that SELinux performs as part of the type enforcement is based on the access vector built up from the attempt. Such an access vector contains - the source context (such as user_t) - the target context (such as lib_t) - the class of the target (such as file) - the activity that is invoked (such as execute)

If an allow statement exists for the entire access vector, then the activity is allowed. If not, it is denied. The allow statement for our example would look like so:

CODE Allow executing lib_t for user_t
allow user_t lib_t : file { execute };

The source context type and target context type are defined by the policy developer (or security administrator). On an average SELinux system several hundreds, if not thousands of types exist. These types are declared every time differentiation is needed on the access. For instance, policy developers noticed that there were cases where a shell script only needed to call the shell interpreter itself (such as bash) but no other binaries. If the shell interpreter was labeled as bin_t then these shell scripts had access to all binaries labeled bin_t. So the policy developers created a second type, shell_exec_t, so that shell scripts only needed access to that type and were prevented from executing other, generic binaries.

Labeling is the action of putting a context (or label) on a resource. The context of a file is often called the label of that file. A relabeling operation means that the label of the files is reset to the right value.

Next to the types, SELinux also supports a large set of classes. This allows SELinux to differentiate accesses based on the class of a resource. Privileges on a lib_t file versus those of a lib_t socket file or directory are completely separate for SELinux. This is unlike the discretionary access controls on a Linux system.

The set of classes can be seen on a SELinux enabled system like so:

root #ls /sys/fs/selinux/class
appletalk_socket  db_procedure  file            netlink_audit_socket           node           socket              x_cursor     x_screen
association       db_schema     filesystem      netlink_dnrt_socket            nscd           sock_file           x_device     x_selection
blk_file          db_sequence   ipc             netlink_firewall_socket        packet         system              x_drawable   x_server
capability        db_table      kernel_service  netlink_ip6fw_socket           packet_socket  tcp_socket          x_event      x_synthetic_event
capability2       db_tuple      key             netlink_kobject_uevent_socket  passwd         tun_socket          x_extension
chr_file          dbus          key_socket      netlink_nflog_socket           peer           udp_socket          x_font
context           db_view       lnk_file        netlink_route_socket           process        unix_dgram_socket   x_gc
db_blob           dccp_socket   memprotect      netlink_selinux_socket         rawip_socket   unix_stream_socket  x_keyboard
db_column         dir           msg             netlink_socket                 security       x_application_data  x_pointer
db_database       fd            msgq            netlink_tcpdiag_socket         sem            x_client            x_property
db_language       fifo_file     netif           netlink_xfrm_socket            shm            x_colormap          x_resource

Each class has its own set of supported privileges. The supported permissions of a regular file for instance:

root #ls /sys/fs/selinux/class/file/perms/
append      execmod           getattr  lock     quotaon      relabelto  swapon
create      execute           ioctl    mounton  read         rename     unlink
entrypoint  execute_no_trans  link     open     relabelfrom  setattr    write

The supported permissions for a TCP socket:

root #ls /sys/fs/selinux/class/tcp_socket/perms/
accept      bind       create   ioctl   name_bind     node_bind  recv_msg     send_msg  setopt
acceptfrom  connect    getattr  listen  name_connect  read       relabelfrom  sendto    shutdown
append      connectto  getopt   lock    newconn       recvfrom   relabelto    setattr   write

With such a vast set of possible access vectors, policy development is a large undertaking. Luckily, distributions such as Gentoo Linux come with a complete set of default policies to use, with thanks to the reference policy project which manages a base policy for distributions to work with.

For more information on type enforcement, please read our type enforcement article.

Role-based access control

From the SELinux type, we now get into the realm of the SELinux role. Remember the context in our example? It had user_r as the SELinux role in the context of the process that was trying to execute a file.

Roles are like caps that a user can put on. A user is always assigned to a role, but can decide to switch roles (of course if allowed to switch to a role). An unprivileged user might only have access to one role (user_r) whereas an administrator might have access to several roles (staff_r for regular operations, and sysadm_r for system administrative tasks). This is also how roles in organizations are used. There are developer roles, system engineer roles, system administrator roles, it architect roles, database administrator roles, etc.

In SELinux, roles decide which types a process context can be in. The user_r role has the right to have processes run in the user_t type. Types for processes are also called domains. So the role-based access control decides which domains a role is allowed to have.

Consider a regular user role (user_r) versus database administrator role (dbadm_r). The regular user will not have access to the backup infrastructure, so the backup_t domain is not allowed for the user_r role. Even if the user would somehow be able to run backup software (say from a USB stick) this software will be running in the user domain (user_t) and not the backup domain (backup_t). And as the user domain is not allowed to access database files directly, the user will not be able to backup or restore data.

Unlike the database administrator, whose dbadm_r role is allowed to access backup_t. The database administrator can therefore execute backup software, which (assuming the policies are all correct) run in the backup_t domain, which is allowed to manage database files. As a result, the database administrator can backup and restore databases.

The set of domains that a role has access to can be requested on a SELinux system through the seinfo command:

user $seinfo -ruser_r -x

Security administrators will usually design least privilege access through the role-based access controls, and then assign the roles to the users on a need-to-have basis. So privileges are not assigned to users individually (as that doesn't scale well) but to the domains, which are assigned to the roles, and users are assigned one or more roles to perform their duties.

User-based access control

The first part of a context is the SELinux user. The idea behind the SELinux user is that it has to remain immutable, unlike roles which can be switched on user request.

The SELinux user decides which roles someone is allowed to go to. For instance, the user_u SELinux user specifies that only the user_r role is allowed, whereas the staff_u user specifies that the allowed roles are staff_r and sysadm_r. This can be seen by either seinfo or semanage:

root #seinfo -ustaff_u -x
root #semanage user -l
SELinux User       SELinux Roles

root               staff_r sysadm_r
staff_u            staff_r sysadm_r
sysadm_u           sysadm_r
system_u           system_r
user_u             user_r

On SELinux systems, Linux users are mapped to an SELinux user. This mapping is what decides what a user is allowed to do on a system.

Mappings can be seen (and managed) using semanage login:

root #semanage login -l
Login Name         SELinux User

__default__        user_u
swift              staff_u
root               root

This is still part of the role-based access control, but important to know as we can now go to the used-based access control.

On Gentoo, if USE="ubac" is set, User Based Access Control (UBAC) is enabled. This ensures that unprivileged users with a different SELinux user cannot access each others' resources even if the types would allow this.

Remember the example of one user sharing access to his files to other users? Well, if all users run with the user_t type (which is normal for unprivileged users) and have the files labeled as user_home_t (which is normal for the contents in the user /home/* locations) then type enforcement would still allow one user to access another users' resources if that user opened up his home directory. After all, SELinux has the following rule to allow users to manage their own files:

CODE SELinux rule allowing regular users to manage their files
allow user_t user_home_t:dir { read write execute close open ... };
allow user_t user_home_t:file { read write execute close open ... };

However, we can create SELinux users for each user individually, and map each Linux user to a specific SELinux user. With that in place, the contexts of userA's and userB's files differ:

root #ls -ldZ /home/userA/somefile /home/userB/somefile
-rwx------. userA userA  userA_u:object_r:user_home_t /home/userA/somefile
-rwxrw-rw-. userB userB  userB_u:object_r:user_home_t /home/userB/somefile

In the example, userB has opened up access to his /home/userB/somefile file (making it world writable). But userA will not be able to access it, as userA will run with the userA_u SELinux user, which is not allowed to access userB_u labeled resources of type user_home_t (UBAC works on a per type basis, not all types are what is called ubac-constrained).

Multi-level security

The last access control to discuss is the multi-level security.

In the security world, the sensitivity can be seen as the classification of data. For instance, you can have strictly confidential data, confidential data, internal data and public data. There usually is a strict order in this classification. Someone who has clearance to read confidential data can read internal and public data as well, but not strictly confidential data. Similarly, someone working on confidential data should not at the same time be allowed to write to internal or public data (as that would lead to information leakage).

This gives an information flow model that is often mentioned as "no read up, no write down".

In SELinux, this model is supported through the sensitivity of a context. In that case, a user context could look like user_u:user_r:user_t:s0 or sysadm_u:sysadm_r:sysadm_t:s0-s0:c0.c1024. Note however that the added part is just a single set, so s0-s0:c0.c1024 is one added field to the context.

This added field is the sensitivity, and contains one, sometimes two parts.

  1. The first part is the sensitivity level, which is an integer representation
  2. The second part is the category set, which are integers as well

The sensitivity level represents the classification. For instance, s0 is public data, s1 internal, s2 confidential and s3 strictly confidential. It is up to the security administrator to decide how many layers he wants.

The category represents a set of integers which can be assigned to resources. Each integer is some sort of "tag" on a resource, and can be used to differentiate classes of data. One could use a category for every department in an organization, or a category for every company on a multi-tenant system. A few examples of category sets are: - c0 meaning category 0 - c0,c4 meaning categories 0 and 4 - c0.c4 meaning categories 0 up to 4 (so 0, 1, 2, 3 and 4)

The clearance shows what a domain is allowed to access. A clearance of s0-s1:c0,c4.c8 means that the process runs in the sensitivity level s0 and is allowed to access resources with sensitivity up to s1 and categories 0 and 4 to 8. A resource with a subset of categories assigned is also accessible, but a resource that has another category that is not part of the clearance will not be accessible by that domain.

SELinux users can be given a default clearance set, and the login mappings can reduce the clearance of users even further.

Multi-level security is supported in Gentoo through the mls policy store. The mcs policy store also supports MLS, but only with a single sensitivity.


So far for all the features, but how is SELinux integrated in Gentoo then?

Enabling SELinux support in packages

First of all, the SELinux support in the applications is enabled through the selinux USE flag. This flag is not configurable by end users - for that a SELinux profile needs to be enabled.

root #eselect profile list | grep selinux
 [2]   default/linux/amd64/13.0/selinux
 [12]  hardened/linux/amd64/selinux *
 [14]  hardened/linux/amd64/no-multilib/selinux

But just enabling this profile isn't sufficient as a set of actions need to be taken to convert a system to become a SELinux system. These instructions are available in the SELinux handbook for now, and will be in the Installation page on the wiki later.


The SELinux policy is provided through the various sec-policy/selinux-* packages, with a sec-policy/selinux-base package that contains the base policy (a minimal set of policies that cannot be segregated from each other) and a sec-policy/selinux-base-policy package that contains the minimal set of SELinux policy modules for a Gentoo system.

The SELinux policy itself is compiled in a binary format, whose resulting files are available at /usr/share/selinux/* and all have an .pp suffix. These binary policy packages are loaded by the semodule command, similar to how Linux kernel modules are loaded by the insmod command.

Thanks to the USE flag integration, depending policies are automatically loaded when a user installs software that has a policy module for. Applications that have specific SELinux support (such as the core utilities to display SELinux labels) will also build in this support when USE="selinux" is set.


Once a system is SELinux-enabled, some additional administration is needed. It is not our intention to cover all administrative commands, but instead give the necessary pointers to the right resources.

SELinux state and mode

The sestatus command tells us what the current SELinux state is.

root #sestatus
SELinux status:                 enabled
SELinuxfs mount:                /sys/fs/selinux
SELinux root directory:         /etc/selinux
Loaded policy name:             strict
Current mode:                   enforcing
Mode from config file:          enforcing
Policy MLS status:              disabled
Policy deny_unknown status:     denied
Max kernel policy version:      28

Possible states are disabled or enabled. The disabled state means SELinux is completely turned off and does not effect system behavior. If SELinux is enabled, then its mode can be permissive or enforcing.

In permissive mode, SELinux will be consulted but will not enforce its decision. Instead, it will only log denials and still allow the action to continue. This is great for troubleshooting issues, as we can temporarily disable SELinux to see if it is really to blame, but also to convert a system to an SELinux system: we can verify that everything would work (no specific denials) after which we can enable SELinux.

In enforcing mode, SELinux will enforce its policy on the system. Denials are of course still logged, but now the applications will actually be prevented from doing any action that isn't allowed by the policy.

It is also possible to flag a specific domain as permissive so that applications running in this domain will be treated as if the system were in permissive mode: any actions taken outside of the policy will be logged, but they will be allowed to happen. This is another troubleshooting feature, so that a newly-added domain can be analyzed via logged denials while the remainder of the system runs in the full-security enforcing mode.

As a separate concept from the above modes, the policy can include a highly privileged domain that has almost full permissions. Such a domain with (almost) no restrictions imposed by SELinux is referred to as an unconfined domain. SELinux will allow (almost) all actions taken by an unconfined domain because the policy says that it is ok, regardless of whether SELinux is in enforcing or permissive mode. There will not be any access violations to be logged in this case, as opposed to a more restrictive domain being handled permissively (either due to domain-specific permissive flag or system-wide permissive mode) and logs denials that would otherwise have occurred.

Listing contexts

Many Linux utilities support showing the SELinux context. As everything SELinux handles must have a context, viewing the context associated with every resource is very important. Contexts can be easily viewed for many resource types.

Inside a shell, the id command can display the context of the current user/session:

user $id -Z

File, directory and other file-represented resource contexts can be seen through ls -Z or stat:

user $ls -lZ metadata.xml
-rw-r--r--. 1 swift users staff_u:object_r:user_home_t 1020 Dec 10  2011 metadata.xml

Process contexts can be seen through ps -Z:

user $ps -eZ | grep init
system_u:system_r:init_t            1 ?        00:00:00 init
staff_u:staff_r:staff_t          6045 tty1     00:00:00 xinit

Port contexts can be queried with seinfo:

user $seinfo --portcon=80
        portcon tcp 80 system_u:object_r:http_port_t
        portcon tcp 1-511 system_u:object_r:reserved_port_t
        portcon udp 1-511 system_u:object_r:reserved_port_t

For more information about contexts and labels, please refer to our SELinux labels article.

Label management

The most common administrative set of commands are related to labeling of resources. Remember that for SELinux, everything is managed through the contexts. When problems arise, administrators will need to check and, if necessary, update the context of the resources in order to have everything working again.

Contexts can be set explicitly using chcon:

root #chcon -t net_conf_t /etc/resolv.conf

However, SELinux utilities have a specific database in which the "correct" labels for all files are stored. This database uses path expressions to match a file path against and to decide what the right context should be. If this database is correctly defined, then a relabeling operation can help to reset the context of a file. This can be done using restorecon:

root #restorecon /etc/resolv.conf

If all files of a Gentoo package need to be relabeled, rlpkg can be used. For instance, to relabel all files provided by the app-misc/screen package:

root #rlpkg screen

Administrators can query the current file label list using semanage:

root #semanage fcontext -l | grep resolv
/etc/resolv\.conf.*                       regular file     system_u:object_r:net_conf_t
/usr/libexec/polkit-resolve-exe-helper.*  regular file     system_u:object_r:policykit_resolve_exec_t

The file label list can be updated as well. For instance, to have /etc/puppet-resolv.conf also marked as net_conf_t:

root #semanage fcontext -a -t net_conf_t /etc/puppet-resolv\.conf

After updating the database, the file needs to be relabeled to reset its context to the newly defined value:

root #restorecon /etc/puppet-resolv.conf

For more information about label management, please refer to our SELinux labels article.

User management

SELinux users are managed through semanage user whereas Linux user account mappings are managed with semanage login.

For instance, to map the Linux account 'john' to the staff_u SELinux user:

root #semanage login -a -s staff_u john

Additional SELinux users can be created using semanage user, like so:

root #semanage user -a -R "staff_r sysadm_r" myuser_u

For more information, see our SELinux users and logins article.

Sensitivities and categories

Security clearance for users is set during the definition of the user mapping (with semanage login) or on the SELinux user itself (with semanage user). Once a user has a clearance set, he can reduce his own clearance through the runcon command.

root #id -Z
root #runcon -l s0-s0:c0.c10,c12 sh
root #id -Z

Categories on files and other resources can be set using chcat, like so:

user $chcat +c12 metadata.xml

To make category and sensitivity management simpler, it is possible to create translations for this. By editing /etc/selinux/mcs/mcstrans.conf and launching the mcstrans daemon, instead of showing something like s0:c12 this sensitivity could be named ITDepartment.

Troubleshooting denials

When SELinux prevents an access, it will log this in the audit subsystem (or to the system logger if auditing isn't enabled).

To query the audit logs, ausearch can be used:

root #ausearch -m avc -ts recent
time->Sat Apr 26 22:06:22 2014
type=MMAP msg=audit(1398542782.012:19315): fd=24 flags=0x11
type=SYSCALL msg=audit(1398542782.012:19315): arch=c000003e syscall=9 success=no exit=-13 a0=1000 a1=a0000 a2=7 a3=11 items=0 ppid=15803 pid=15856 auid=4294967295 uid=0 gid=0 euid=0 suid=0 fsuid=0 egid=0 sgid=0 fsgid=0 tty=(none) ses=4294967295 comm="edidvbe" exe="/usr/nsh/NSH/nativetool/libexec/platform/linux-2.6-x86/edidvbe" subj=system_u:system_r:unconfined_t:s0 key=(null)
type=AVC msg=audit(1398542782.012:19315): avc:  denied  { mmap_zero } for  pid=15856 comm="edidvbe" scontext=system_u:system_r:nsh_t:s0 tcontext=system_u:system_r:nsh_t:s0 tclass=memprotect

In this example, the nsh_t domain wanted to call mmap_zero for the memprotect class but was prevented to do so by SELinux.

For more information about SELinux' logging, please refer to our logging and denials article.

Adding SELinux policy rules

It is not possible to easily remove rules from an active policy, but it is possible to add them.

For simple policy enhancements, Gentoo offers a selocal script to do just that. For instance, to allow the above mentioned access:

root #selocal -a "allow nsh_t nsh_t:memprotect mmap_zero;" -Lb

When the enhancements are frequent, it is better to create a SELinux policy module ourselves that contains the rule(s) and load it:

root #vim mynsh.te
policy_module(mynsh, 1.0)

  type nsh_t;

allow nsh_t nsh_t:memprotect mmap_zero;
root #make -f /usr/share/selinux/strict/include/Makefile mynsh.pp
root #semodule -i mynsh.pp


SELinux is a very flexible, mandatory access control system. In this article we just scratched the surface of the SELinux subsystem and gave a quick introduction to the various areas. For a complete overview of SELinux and how to manage SELinux on Gentoo, please refer to the SELinux wiki page.