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?

2 Answers 2


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.

  • 2
    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, 2014 at 22:59
  • 2
    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). Oct 29, 2015 at 20:53
  • You need not create the wheel group to make use of the sudo group in its place for pam purposes. Just add group=sudo following the statement. e.g. to allow members of the sudo group to su without a password, simply uncomment/modify the line in /etc/pam.d/su as follows: auth sufficient pam_wheel.so trust group=sudo Jan 11, 2017 at 5:03
  • All true, and it exists in Ubuntu 16.04 LTS but appears not to be the same as before. sudoers is the way to control this now (September 2017).
    – SDsolar
    Sep 11, 2017 at 8:07
  • @SDsolar This hasn't changed in Ubuntu: /etc/sudoers has always been the way to control root access. But since the default sudoers allows anybody in the sudo group to become root, you can control root access by managing the list of users who are in the sudo group. Sep 11, 2017 at 8:45

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?

  • 15
    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. Dec 1, 2010 at 8:31
  • 1
    Pretty good. Hah.
    – SDsolar
    Sep 11, 2017 at 8:08
  • 1
    For what it’s worth, this is pretty bad reasoning for this feature. Nowadays almost all devices have internet access, making them vulnerable to completely known third parties, and there any extra restriction caused by this kind of group would make sense.
    – Smar
    Sep 20, 2021 at 12:02

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .