You are thinking that the
x has a special meaning here, and are therefore worrying that there might be some distinction among them.
The fact is that these characters are chosen simply because they stand out, at least to the eyes of those who developed Unix and its descendants. To Western eyes, these characters all have a connotation of "missing" or "unknown" or "warning" or "exception." You could put
boogabooga here and have exactly the same effect.
This is because of the way passwords are handled on Unix type systems. When the system receives a password entry, it hashes it and compares it to the stored hash. Therefore, all that matters here is that you use some character or sequence of characters that cannot possibly be a hash. (And doesn't include a colon, for obvious reasons.)
Actually, it's not 100% true that there is no distinction at all between
*. There are some programs that do have assumptions about the exact character you use here, but these uses are more matters of convention than ones of semantic meaning:
When the Linux
pwconv(8) program sees
x, it takes that to mean "I have already moved this public password hash to the shadow password file."
That's not a terribly important case in practice because the days of converting to (and heaven help you, from) shadow passwords are essentially behind us now.
If you use
usermod -L or
passwd -l to lock a user,
! has special meaning in
/etc/shadow because that's the convention for "break this hash so it doesn't match any more."
Adding any other character to the stored hash would break it just as well. Violating this convention prevents
usermod -U or
passwd -u from unlocking it. Just as equally true, since you locked it by hand by adding a bogus character, you can unlock it by hand by removing it.
All that is just trivia with respect to this question however, since there is no
groupmod -L or
gpasswd -l. Hence, no
! convention in
More trivia: if you are going to lock user accounts by hand, you should stay away from the
[A-Za-z0-9/\] set, since those are legal characters for the hash. That's one reason they use
! here instead of
I don't see anything wrong with normalizing all your
/etc/group password fields, if that makes you feel better. By doing so, you are already saying you're happy hacking these files by hand, so you're probably not the sort to be using the tools that care about the distinctions anyway. Regardless, the change isn't going to have an effect on day-to-day system operation.