I get permission errors when I have a process running as root, spawning a subprocess as www-data, which then accesses a dir which is owned by root, with a subfolder which is owned by www-data, which has a symlink to a dir which is owned by a user in the group www-data, which then has.... you get the idea.

How the heck do I know where it fails in this impossibly complex chain? All I get is Permission Denied

Without getting bogged down in the details of this particular situation, how does one begin to debug a problem like this on Unix?

I want to just say

debug_permissions.sh www-data /my/long/symlink/chain

and I want it to go through the symlink chain and tell me where the terminal point is (where www-data fails to have permissions).

I know there is a tool

namei -l /path/

but that isn't very helpful because it doesn't let me run as another user (or at least I don't know how).

If I run sudo su www-data, I get This account is currently not available.

I want to be able to "become" www-data and cd around to the dirs and see where I fail to see things. But that's not letting me do this and I don't want to create a new user just to do this.


2 Answers 2


Aha, this does it:

sudo -H -u www-data namei /my/long/symlink/chain

where www-data is the user I'm trying to debug

  • 2
    Strictly speaking that is the answer how to solve your particular problem, not how to debug permissions... (I'd have used strace for that to find the call that actually gives problems).
    – dirkt
    Jul 7, 2017 at 6:36
  • Please post an example of how to use strace -- I have never used it
    – Jonathan
    Jul 8, 2017 at 0:53
  • 1
    E.g. here, or google for lots more.
    – dirkt
    Jul 8, 2017 at 6:51

Generally, I have a couple of tactics to debug file system permission issues.

Assuming that an example user named userWhoShouldHaveAccess is supposed to be able to list the contents of the directory /dir/with/access/issues, I'll have this running in a terminal to learn whether whatever I tried worked:

watch sudo -u userWhoShouldHaveAccess ls /dir/with/access/issues

The following lets me keep an eye on the permissions from the root directory to the directory I want the user to access:

cd / && watch namei -l /dir/with/access/issues

I'll keep in mind that in order to list files in a directory, the user must traverse the whole path /dir/with/access/issues, meaning the user must have executable permissions in the target directory and all the parent directories.

I'll keep in mind that group changes to a user are only effective after logging out and logging in again, although there are workarounds for that.

I can show the user ID and the groups the user belongs to with id userWhoShouldHaveAccess.

Since there are also access control lists in addition to the owner/group/other permissions that determine access, I'll check those with

getfacl /dir/with/access/issues

If the user should be able to write, I can run this in the background to learn when writing works:

while true; do sudo -u userWhoShouldHaveAccess bash -c '(echo "Test at $(date) by $(whoami)" >> /dir/with/access/issues/test_file);sleep 1';done

Here are some basics of file permissions on Linux.

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