My script needs to call multiple times a program that needs a password, which can only be passed as an environment variable. As I want to ask the user for the password only once, I've done this :

program some_option
program some_other_option
program yet_another_option

As I understand it, the content of the PASSPHRASE variable is only accessible to the current shell and the program during the three calls, then the variable is reset and the passphrase isn't accessible to anyone else.

Am I right, or am I doing it wrong ?

I'm concerned about the other users on the system (excluding root) and the other programs running on my user account.

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Define "safe"

  1. Root can always read everything, so nothing is safe from root
  2. Env vars for User U are safe from other users
  3. Env vars for User U and Program P are not safe from Program Q run by User U

So, root can read that env var for a short period, and other programs run by the same user can read that env var for a short period


  1. Own root, or trust root
  2. Don't run other programs with the same user
  3. Run these programs as their own user

If you don't want to export the env var, you can call your commands like this:

$PASSPHRASE command-name -option

Might make things a little safer, but other programs run by same user can still probably see them with a little trickery (ktrace/strace, debugging)

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    @YdobEmos other users cannot see another user's env vars, so you are safe in that regard. Other programs run by the same user can see exported env vars. I added a note to show how to avoid exporting them, but they can probably still be seen by other programs run as same user – Neil McGuigan Feb 14 '17 at 20:31
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    @YdobEmos with various debugging tools, like ktrace or gdb – Neil McGuigan Feb 14 '17 at 20:39
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    Or on Linux, since they are running under the same user, by inspecting /proc/<pid>/environ (for the PID of program, not the shell). – Kusalananda Feb 14 '17 at 20:50
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    @YdobEmos 1. don't install malicious programs 2. create a new user for this secure task – Neil McGuigan Feb 14 '17 at 20:53
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    @YdobEmos consider OpenBSD with Xenocara which gives you some priv-sep for X-Windows – Neil McGuigan Feb 14 '17 at 20:57

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