Unix & Linux Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for users of Linux, FreeBSD and other Un*x-like operating systems. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

It appears to be Unix tradition that a wheel group is created automatically, but Debian (and children, naturally) doesn't do so. Is there a rationale somewhere? Where else have you seen this tradition discarded?

share|improve this question
up vote 15 down vote accepted

Some unix systems allow only members of the wheel group to use su. Others allow anyone to use su if they know the password of the target user. There are even systems where being in the wheel group grants passwordless root access; Ubuntu does this, except that the group is called sudo (and doesn't have id 0).

I think wheel is mostly a BSD thing. Linux is a mix of BSD and System V, and the various distributions have different default policies with respect to granting root access. Debian happens not to implement a wheel group by default; if you want to enable it, uncomment the auth required pam_wheel.so line in /etc/pam.d/su.

share|improve this answer
rhel has wheel group and also sudo, in which you can make whole wheel group passwordless. I'm not following your point sorry.. – holms Mar 11 '14 at 22:59
In Ubuntu 15.10, uncommenting this line does not restore the wheel group. But, you can duplicate the "root" group in /etc/group wheel:x:0:root and modify the /etc/pam.d/su file as auth required pam_wheel.so group=wheel, (removing the comment before). – elika kohen Oct 29 '15 at 20:53

Because wheel is a tool of oppression! From info su:

Why GNU 'su' does not support the 'wheel' group

(This section is by Richard Stallman.)

Sometimes a few of the users try to hold total power over all the rest. For example, in 1984, a few users at the MIT AI lab decided to seize power by changing the operator password on the Twenex system and keeping it secret from everyone else. (I was able to thwart this coup and give power back to the users by patching the kernel, but I wouldn't know how to do that in Unix.)

However, occasionally the rulers do tell someone. Under the usual `su' mechanism, once someone learns the root password who sympathizes with the ordinary users, he or she can tell the rest. The "wheel group" feature would make this impossible, and thus cement the power of the rulers.

I'm on the side of the masses, not that of the rulers. If you are used to supporting the bosses and sysadmins in whatever they do, you might find this idea strange at first.

See also the Debian Reference. Anyways, the sudo group is built in so who needs wheel?

share|improve this answer
I don't know the history, but I doubt this quote is the real reason why Debian doesn't implement the wheel group by default. (Debian's su does support the wheel group, it's just not enabled by default.) Anyway rms's reasoning might apply to MIT in the 1980s, but it doesn't apply to most places where not all users can be trusted and ubiquitous Internet accessibility means security needs to protect against attackers from all over the world. – Gilles Dec 1 '10 at 8:31

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.