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In this article by Sven Vermeulen, the author of the book SELinux System Administration Second Edition, we will see how Security Enhanced Linux (SELinux) brings additional security measures for your Linux system to further protect the resources on the system. This article explains why SELinux has opted to use labels to identify resources, the way SELinux differentiates itself from regular Linux access controls through the enforcement of security rules, how the access control rules enforced by SELinux are provided through policy files, the different SELinux implementations between Linux distributions.

(For more resources related to this topic, see here.)

Providing more security to Linux

Seasoned Linux administrators and security engineers already know that they need to put some trust in the users and processes on their system in order for the system to remain secure. This is partially because users can attempt to exploit vulnerabilities found in the software running on the system, but a large contribution to this trust level is because the secure state of the system depends on the behavior of the users. A Linux user with access to sensitive information could easily leak that out to the public, manipulate the behavior of the applications he or she launches, and do many other things that affect the security of the system. The default access controls that are active on a regular Linux system are discretionary; it is up to the user’s how the access controls should behave.

The Linux discretionary access control (DAC) mechanism is based on the user and/or group information of the process and is matched against the user and/or group information of the file, directory, or other resource being manipulated. Consider the /etc/shadow file, which contains the password and account information of the local Linux accounts:

$ ls -l /etc/shadow
-rw------- 1 root root 1010 Apr 25 22:05 /etc/shadow

Without additional access control mechanisms in place, this file is readable and writable by any process that is owned by the root user, regardless of the purpose of the process on the system. The shadow file is a typical example of a sensitive file that we don’t want to see leaked or abused in any other fashion. Yet, the moment someone has access to the file, they can copy it elsewhere, for example to a home directory, or even mail it to a different computer and attempt to attack the password hashes stored within.

Another example of how Linux DAC requires trust from its users is when a database is hosted on the system. Database files themselves are (hopefully) only accessible to runtime users of the database management system (DBMS) and the Linux root user. Properly secured systems will only grant trusted users access to these files (for instance, through sudo) by allowing them to change their effective user ID from their personal user to database runtime user or even root account for a well-defined set of commands. These users too can analyze the database files and gain access to potentially confidential information in the database without going through the DBMS.

However, regular users are not the only reason for securing a system. Lots of software daemons run as the Linux root user or have significant privileges on the system. Errors within those daemons can easily lead to information leakage or might even lead to exploitable remote command execution vulnerabilities. Backup software, monitoring software, change management software, scheduling software, and so on: they all often run with the highest privileged account possible on a regular Linux system. Even when the administrator does not allow privileged users, their interaction with daemons induces a potential security risk. As such, the users are still trusted to correctly interact with these applications in order for the system to function properly. Through this, the administrator leaves the security of the system to the discretion of its (many) users.

Enter SELinux, which provides an additional access control layer on top of the standard Linux DAC mechanism. SELinux provides a mandatory access control (MAC) system that, unlike its DAC counterpart, gives the administrator full control over what is allowed on the system and what isn’t. It accomplishes this by supporting a policy-driven approach over what processes are and aren’t allowed to do and by enforcing this policy through the Linux kernel.

Mandatory means that access control is enforced by the operating system and defined solely by the administrator. Users and processes do not have permission to change the security rules, so they cannot work around the access controls; security is not left to their discretion anymore.

The word mandatory here, just like the word discretionary before, was not chosen by accident to describe the abilities of the access control system: both are known terms in the security research field and have been described in many other publications, including the Trusted Computer System Evaluation Criteria (TCSEC) (http://csrc.nist.gov/publications/history/dod85.pdf) standard (also known as the Orange Book) by the Department of Defense in the United States of America in 1985. This publication has led to the common criteria standard for computer security certification (ISO/IEC 15408), available at http://www.commoncriteriaportal.org/cc/.

Using Linux security modules

Consider the example of the shadow file again. A MAC system can be configured to only allow a limited number of processes to read and write to the file. A user logged on as root cannot directly access the file or even move it around. He can’t even change the attributes of the file:

# id
uid=0(root) gid=0(root)
# cat /etc/shadow
cat: /etc/shadow: Permission denied
# chmod a+r /etc/shadow
chmod: changing permissions of '/etc/shadow': Permission denied

This is enforced through rules that describe when the contents of a file can be read. With SELinux, these rules are defined in the SELinux policy and are loaded when the system boots. It is the Linux kernel itself that is responsible for enforcing the rules. Mandatory access control systems such as SELinux can be easily integrated into the Linux kernel through its support for Linux Security Modules (LSM):

High-level overview of how LSM is integrated into the Linux kernel

LSM has been available in the Linux kernel since version 2.6, sometime in December 2003. It is a framework that provides hooks inside the Linux kernel to various locations, including the system call entry points, and allows a security implementation such as SELinux to provide functions to be called when a hook is triggered. These functions can then do their magic (for instance, checking the policy and other information) and give a go/no-go back to allow the call to go through or not. LSM by itself does not provide any security functionality; instead, it relies on security implementations that do the heavy lifting. SELinux is one of the implementations that use LSM, but there are several others: AppArmor, Smack, TOMOYO Linux, and Yama, to name a few.

At the time of writing this, only one main security implementation can be active through the LSM hooks. Work is underway to enable stacking multiple security implementations, allowing system administrators to have more than one implementation active. Recent work has already allowed multiple implementations to be defined (but not simultaneously active). When supported, this will allow administrators to pick the best features of a number of implementations and enforce smaller LSM-implemented security controls on top of the more complete security model implementations, such as SELinux, TOMOYO, Smack, or AppArmor.

Extending regular DAC with SELinux

SELinux does not change the Linux DAC implementation nor can it override denials made by the Linux DAC permissions. If a regular system (without SELinux) prevents a particular access, there is nothing SELinux can do to override this decision. This is because the LSM hooks are triggered after the regular DAC permission checks have been executed.

For instance, if you need to allow an additional user access to a file, you cannot add an SELinux policy to do that for you. Instead, you will need to look into other features of Linux, such as the use of POSIX access control lists. Through the setfacl and getfacl commands (provided by the acl package) the user can set additional permissions on files and directories, opening up the selected resource to additional users or groups.

As an example, let’s grant user lisa read-write access to a file using setfacl:

$ setfacl -m u:lisa:rw /path/to/file

Similarly, to view the current POSIX ACLs applied to the file, use this command:

$ getfacl /path/to/file
# file: file
# owner: swift
# group: swift

Restricting root privileges

The regular Linux DAC allows for an all-powerful user: root. Unlike most other users on the system, the logged-on root user has all the rights needed to fully manage the entire system, ranging from overriding access controls to controlling audits, changing user IDs, managing the network, and much more. This is supported through a security concept called capabilities (for an overview of Linux capabilities, check out the capabilities manual page: man capabilities). SELinux is also able to restrict access to these capabilities in a fine-grained manner.

Due to this fine-grained authorization aspect of SELinux, even the root user can be confined without impacting the operations on the system. The aforementioned example of accessing /etc/shadow is just one example of a restriction that a powerful user as root still might not be able to make due to the SELinux access controls being in place.

When SELinux was added to the mainstream Linux kernel, some security projects even went as far as providing public root shell access to an SELinux-protected system, asking hackers and other security researchers to compromise the box. The ability to restrict root was welcomed by system administrators who sometimes need to pass on the root password or root shell to other users (for example, database administrators) who needed root privileges when their software went haywire. Thanks to SELinux, the administrator can now pass on a root shell while resting assured that the user only has those rights he needs, and not full system-administration rights.

Reducing the impact of vulnerabilities

If there is one benefit of SELinux that needs to be stressed, while often also being misunderstood, it is its ability to reduce the impact of vulnerabilities.

A properly written SELinux policy confines applications so that their allowed activities are reduced to a minimum set. This least-privilege model ensures that abnormal application behavior is not only detected and audited but also prevented. Many application vulnerabilities can be exploited to execute tasks that an application is not meant to do. When this happens, SELinux will prevent this.

However, there are two misconceptions about SELinux state and its ability to thwart exploits, namely, the impact of the policy and the exploitation itself.

If the policy is not written in a least-privilege model, then SELinux might consider this nonstandard behavior as normal and allow the actions to continue. For policy writers, this means that their policy code has to be very fine-grained. Sadly, that makes writing policies very time-consuming; there are more than 80 classes and over 200 permissions known to SELinux, and policy rules need to take into account all these classes and permissions for each interaction between two objects or resources.

As a result, policies tend to become convoluted and harder to maintain. Some policy writers make the policies more permissive than is absolutely necessary, which might result in exploits becoming successful even though the action is not expected behavior from an application point of view. Some application policies are explicitly marked as unconfined (which is discussed later in this article), showing that they are very liberal in their allowed permissions. Red Hat Enterprise Linux even has several application policies as completely permissive, and it starts enforcing access controls for those applications only after a few releases.

The second misconception is the exploit itself. If an application’s vulnerability allows an unauthenticated user to use the application services as if he were authorized, SELinux will not play a role in reducing the impact of the vulnerability; it only notices the behavior of the application itself and not of the sessions internal to the application. As long as the application itself behaves as expected (accessing its own files and not poking around in other filesystems), SELinux will happily allow the actions to take place.

It is only when the application starts behaving erratically that SELinux stops the exploit from continuing. Exploits such as remote command execution (RCE) against applications that should not be executing random commands (such as database management systems or web servers, excluding CGI-like functionality) will be prevented, whereas session hijacking or SQL injection attacks are not controllable through SELinux policies.

Enabling SELinux support

Enabling SELinux on a Linux system is not just a matter of enabling the SELinux LSM module within the Linux kernel.

An SELinux implementation comprises the following:

  • The SELinux kernel subsystem, implemented in the Linux kernel through LSM
  • Libraries, used by applications that need to interact with SELinux
  • Utilities, used by administrators to interact with SELinux
  • Policies, which define the access controls themselves

The libraries and utilities are bundled by the SELinux user space project (https://github.com/SELinuxProject/selinux/wiki). Next to the user space applications and libraries, various components on a Linux system are updated with SELinux-specific code, including the init system and several core utilities.

Because SELinux isn’t just a switch that needs to be toggled, Linux distributions that support SELinux usually come with SELinux predefined and loaded: Fedora and Red Hat Enterprise Linux (with its derivatives, such as CentOS and Oracle Linux) are well-known examples. Other supporting distributions might not automatically have SELinux enabled but can easily support it through the installation of additional packages (which is the case with Debian and Ubuntu), and others have a well-documented approach on how to convert a system to SELinux (for example, Gentoo and Arch Linux).

Labeling all resources and objects

When SELinux has to decide whether it has to allow or deny a particular action, it makes a decision based on the context of both the subject (which is initiating the action) and the object (which is the target of the action). These contexts (or parts of the context) are mentioned in the policy rules that SELinux enforces.

The context of a process is what identifies the process to SELinux. SELinux has no notion of Linux process ownership and, frankly, does not care how the process is called, which process ID it has, and what account the process runs as. All it wants to know is what the context of that process is, which is represented to users and administrators as a label. Label and context are often used interchangeably, and although there is a  technical distinction (one is a representation of the other), we will not dwell on that much.

Let’s look at an example label: the context of the current user (try it out yourself if you are on an SELinux-enabled system):

$ id -Z

The id command, which returns information about the current user, is executed here with the -z switch (a commonly agreed-upon switch for displaying SELinux information). It shows us the context of the current user (actually the context of the id process itself when it was executing). As we can see, the context has a string representation and looks as if it has five fields (it doesn’t; it has four fields—the last field just happens to contain a :).

SELinux developers decided to use labels instead of real process and file (or other resource) metadata for its access controls. This is different to MAC systems such as AppArmor, which use the path of the binary (and thus the process name) and the paths of the resources to handle permission checks. The decision to make SELinux a label-based mandatory access control was taken for various reasons, which are as follows:

  • Using paths might be easier to comprehend for administrators, but this doesn’t allow us to keep the context information close to the resource. If a file or directory is moved or remounted or a process has a different namespace view on the files, then the access controls might behave differently. With label-based contexts, this information is retained and the system keeps controlling the resource properly.
  • Contexts reveal the purpose of the process very well. The same binary application can be launched in different contexts depending on how it got started. The context value (such as the one shown in the id -Z output earlier) is exactly what the administrator needs. With it, he knows what the rights are of each of the running instances, but he can also deduce from it how the process might have been launched and what its purpose is.
  • Contexts also make abstractions of the object itself. We are used to talking about processes and files, but contexts are also applicable to less tangible resources such as pipes (interprocess communication) or database objects. Path-based identification only works as long as you can write a path.

As an example, consider the following policies:

  • Allow the httpd processes to bind to TCP port 80
  • Allow the processes labeled with httpd_t to bind to TCP ports labeled with http_port_t

In the first example, we cannot easily reuse this policy when the web server process isn’t using the httpd binary (perhaps because it was renamed or it isn’t Apache but another web server) or when we want to have HTTP access on a different port. With the labeled approach, the binary can be called apache2 or MyWebServer.py; as long as the process is labeled httpd_t, the policy applies. The same happens with the port definition: you can label port 8080 with http_port_t and thus allow the web servers to bind to that port as well.

Dissecting the SELinux context

To come to a context, SELinux uses at least three, and sometimes four, values. Let’s look at the context of an Apache web server as an example:

$ ps -eZ | grep httpd
system_u:system_r:httpd_t:s0  511  ?   00:00:00 httpd

As we can see, the process is assigned a context that contains following fields:

  • system_u: This represents the SELinux user
  • system_r: This represents the SELinux role
  • httpd_t: This represents the SELinux type (also known as the domain in the case of a process)
  • s0: This represents the sensitivity level

This structure can be depicted as follows:

The structure of a SELinux context, using the id -Z output as an example

When we work with SELinux, contexts are all we need. In the majority of cases, it is the third field (called the domain or type) that is most important since the majority of SELinux policy rules (over 99 percent) consist of rules related to the interaction between two types (without mentioning roles, users, or sensitivity levels).

SELinux contexts are aligned with LSM security attributes and exposed to the user space, allowing end users and applications to easily query the contexts. An interesting place where these attributes are presented is within the /proc pseudo filesystem.

Inside each process’s /proc/<pid> location, we find a subdirectory called attr, inside of which the following files can be found:

$ ls /proc/$$/attr
current    fscreate     prev
exec       keycreate    sockcreate

All these files, if read, display either nothing or an SELinux context. If it is empty, then that means the application has not explicitly set a context for that particular purpose, and the SELinux context will be deduced either from the policy or inherited from its parent.

The meaning of the files are as follows:

  • The current file displays the current SELinux context of the process.
  • The exec file displays the SELinux context that will be assigned by the next application execution done through this application. It is usually empty.
  • The fscreate file displays the SELinux context that will be assigned to the next file that is written by the application. It is usually empty.
  • The keycreate file displays the SELinux context that will be assigned to the keys cached in the kernel by this application. It is usually empty.
  • The prev file displays the previous SELinux context for this particular process. This is usually the context of its parent application.
  • The sockcreate file displays the SELinux context that will be assigned to the next socket created by the application. It is usually empty.

If an application has multiple subtasks, then the same information is available in each subtask directory at /proc/<pid>/task/<taskid>/attr.

Enforcing access through types

The SELinux type (the third part of an SELinux context) of a process (called the domain) is the basis of the fine-grained access controls of that process with respect to itself and other types (which can be processes, files, sockets, network interfaces, and more). In most SELinux literature, the SELinux label-based access control mechanism is fine-tuned to say that SELinux is a type enforcement mandatory access control system: when some actions are denied, the fine-grained access controls on the type level are most likely to blame.

With type enforcement, SELinux is able to control what an application is allowed to do based on how it got executed in the first place: a web server that is launched interactively by a user will run with a different type than a web server executed through the init system, even though the process binary and path are the same. The web server launched from the init system is most likely trusted (and thus allowed to do whatever web servers are supposed to do), whereas a manually launched web server is less likely to be considered normal behavior and as such will have different privileges.

The majority of SELinux resources will focus on types. Even though the SELinux type is just the third part of an SELinux context, it is the most important one for most administrators. Most documentation will even just talk about a type such as httpd_t rather than a full SELinux context.

Take a look at the following dbus-daemon processes:

# ps -eZ | grep dbus-daemon
system_u:system_r:system_dbusd_t 4531 ?        00:00:00 dbus-daemon
staff_u:staff_r:staff_dbusd_t    5266 ?        00:00:00 dbus-daemon

In this example, one dbus-daemon process is the system D-Bus daemon running with the aptly named system_dbusd_t type, whereas another one is running with the staff_dbusd_t type assigned to it. Even though their binaries are completely the same, they both serve a different purpose on the system and as such have a different type assigned. SELinux then uses this type to govern the actions allowed by the process towards other types, including how system_dbusd_t can interact with staff_dbusd_t.

SELinux types are by convention suffixed with _t, although this is not mandatory.

Granting domain access through roles

SELinux roles (the second part of an SELinux context) allow SELinux to support role-based access controls. Although type enforcement is the most used (and known) part of SELinux, role-based access control is an important method to keep a system secure, especially from malicious user attempts. SELinux roles are used to define which process types (domains) user processes can be in. As such, they help define what a user can and cannot do.

By convention, SELinux roles are defined with an _r suffix. On most SELinux-enabled systems, the following roles are made available to be assigned to users:


This role is meant for restricted users: the user_r SELinux role is only allowed to have processes with types specific to end-user applications. Privileged types, including those used to switch to another Linux user, are not allowed for this role.


This role is meant for non-critical operations: the SELinux staff_r role is generally restricted to the same applications as the restricted user, but it has the ability to switch roles. It is the default role for operators to be in (so as to keep those users in the least privileged role as long as possible).


This role is meant for system administrators: the sysadm_r SELinux role is very privileged, enabling various system-administration tasks. However, certain end-user application types might not be supported (especially if those types are used for potentially vulnerable or untrusted software) to keep the system free from infections.


This role is meant for daemons and background processes: the system_r SELinux role is quite privileged, supporting the various daemon and system process types. However, end-user application types and other administrative types are not allowed in this role.


This role is meant for end users: the unconfined_r role is allowed a limited number of types, but those types are very privileged as it is meant for running any application launched by a user in a more or less unconfined manner (not restricted by SELinux rules). This role as such is only available if the system administrator wants to protect certain processes (mostly daemons) while keeping the rest of the system operations almost untouched by SELinux.

Other roles might be supported as well, such as guest_r and xguest_r, depending on the distribution. It is wise to consult the distribution documentation for more information about the supported roles. An overview of available roles can be obtained through the seinfo command (part of setools-console in RHEL or app-admin/setools in Gentoo):

# seinfo --role
Roles: 14

Limiting roles through users

An SELinux user (the first part of an SELinux context) is different from a Linux user. Unlike Linux user information, which can change while the user is working on the system (through tools such as sudo or su), the SELinux policy can (and generally will) enforce that the SELinux user remain the same even when the Linux user itself has changed. Because of the immutable state of the SELinux user, specific access controls can be implemented to ensure that users cannot work around the set of permissions granted to them, even when they get privileged access.

An example of such an access control is the user-based access control (UBAC) feature that some Linux distributions (optionally) enable, which prevents users from accessing files of different SELinux users even when those users try to use the Linux DAC controls to open up access to each other’s files.

The most important feature of SELinux users, however, is that SELinux user definitions restrict which roles the (Linux) user is allowed to be in. A Linux user is first assigned to an SELinux user—multiple Linux users can be assigned to the same SELinux user. Once set, that user cannot switch to an SELinux role he isn’t meant to be in. This is the role-based access control implementation of SELinux:

Mapping Linux accounts to SELinux users

SELinux users are, by convention, defined with a _u suffix, although this is not mandatory. The SELinux users that most distributions have available are named after the role they represent, but instead of ending with _r, they end with _u. For instance, for the sysadm_r role, there is a sysadm_u SELinux user.

Controlling information flow through sensitivities

The fourth part of an SELinux context, the sensitivity, is not always present (some Linux distributions by default do not enable sensitivity labels). If they are present though, then this part of the label is needed for the multi-level security (MLS) support within SELinux. Sensitivity labels allow classification of resources and restriction of access to those resources based on a security clearance. These labels consist of two parts: a confidentiality value (prefixed with s) and a category value (prefixed with c).

In many larger organizations and companies, documents are labeled internal, confidential, or strictly confidential. SELinux can assign processes a certain clearance level towards these resources. With MLS, SELinux can be configured to follow the Bell-LaPadula model, a security model that can be characterized by no read up and no write down: based on a process clearance level, that process cannot read anything with a higher confidentiality level nor write to (or communicate otherwise with) any resource with a lower confidentiality level. SELinux does not use the internal, confidential, and other labels. Instead, it uses numbers from 0 (lowest confidentiality) to whatever the system administrator has defined as the highest value (this is configurable and set when the SELinux policy is built).

Categories allow resources to be tagged with one or more categories, on which access controls are also possible. The idea behind categories is to support multitenancy (for example, systems hosting applications for multiple customers) within a Linux system, by having processes and resources belonging to one tenant to be assigned a particular set of categories, whereas the processes and resources of another tenant get a different set of categories. When a process does not have proper categories assigned, it cannot do anything with the resources (or other processes) that have other categories assigned.

An unwritten convention in the SELinux world is that (at least) two categories are used to differentiate between tenants. By having services randomly pick two categories for a tenant out of a predefined set of categories, while ensuring each tenant has a unique combination, these services receive proper isolation. The use of two categories is not mandatory but is implemented by services such as sVirt and Docker.

In that sense, categories can be seen as tags, allowing access to be granted only when the tags of the process and the target resource match. As multilevel security is not often used, the benefits of only using categories is persisted in what is called multi-category security (MCS). This is a special MLS case, where only a single confidentiality level is supported (s0).

Defining and distributing policies

Enabling SELinux does not automatically start the enforcement of access. If SELinux is enabled and it cannot find a policy, it will refuse to start. That is because the policy defines the behavior of the system (what SELinux should allow). SELinux policies are generally distributed in a compiled form (just like with software) as policy modules. These modules are then aggregated into a single policy store and loaded in memory to allow SELinux to enforce the policy rules on the system.

Gentoo, being a source-based meta-distribution, distributes the SELinux policies as (source) code as well, which is compiled and built at install time, just like it does with other software.

The following diagram shows the relationship between policy rules, policy modules, and a policy package (which is often a one-to-one mapping towards a policy store):

Relationship between policy rules, policy modules and policy store

Writing SELinux policies

A SELinux policy writer can write down the policy rules in (currently) three possible languages:

  • In standard SELinux source format—a human-readable and well-established language for writing SELinux policies
  • In reference policy style—this extends the standard SELinux source format with M4 macros to facilitate the development of policies.
  • In the SELinux Common Intermediate Language (CIL)—a computer-readable (and, with some effort, human-readable) format for SELinux policies.

Most SELinux supporting distributions base their policy on the reference policy (https://github.com/TresysTechnology/refpolicy/wiki), a fully functional SELinux policy set managed as a free software project. This allows distributions to ship with a functional policy set rather than having to write one themselves. Many project contributors are distribution developers, trying to push changes of their distribution to the reference policy project itself, where the changes are peer-reviewed to make sure no rules are brought into the project that might jeopardize the security of any platform. It easily becomes very troublesome to write reusable policy modules without the extensive set of M4 macros offered by the reference policy project.

The SELinux CIL format is quite recent (RHEL 7.2 does not support it yet), and although it is very much in use already (the recent SELinux user space converts everything in CIL in the background), it is not that common yet for policy writers to use it directly.

As an example, consider the web server rule we discussed earlier, repeated here for your convenience:

Allow the processes labeled with httpd_t to bind to TCP ports labeled with http_port_t.

In the standard SELinux source format, this is written down as follows:

allow httpd_t http_port_t : tcp_socket { name_bind };

Using reference policy style, this rule is part of the following macro call:


In CIL language, the rule would be expressed as follows:

(allow httpd_t http_port_t (tcp_socket (name_bind)))

In most representations, we can see what the rule is about:

  • The subject (who is taking the action): In this case, it is a processes labeled with the httpd_t type.
  • The target resource or object (the target for the action): In this case, it is a TCP socket (tcp_socket) labeled with the http_port_t type. In reference policy style, this is implied by the function name.
  • The action or permission: In this case, it is binding to a port (name_bind). In reference policy style, this is implied by the function name.
  • The result that the policy will enforce: In this case, it is that the action is allowed (allow). In reference policy style, this is implied by the function name.

A policy is generally written for an application or set of applications. So the preceding example will be part of the policy written for web servers.

Policy writers will generally create three files per application or application set:

  • A .te file, which contains the type enforcement rules.
  • An .if file, which contains interface and template definitions, allowing policy writers to easily use the newly generated policy rules to enhance other policies with. You can compare this to header files in other programming languages.
  • An .fc file, which contains file context expressions. These are rules that assign labels to resources on the filesystem.

A finished policy will then be packaged into an SELinux policy module.

Distributing policies through modules

Initially, SELinux used a single, monolithic policy approach: all possible access control rules are maintained in a single policy file. It quickly became clear that this is not manageable in the long term, and the idea of developing a modular policy approach was born.

Within the modular approach, policy developers can write isolated policy sets for a particular application (or set of applications), roles, and so on. These policies then get built and distributed as policy modules. Platforms that need access controls for a particular application load the SELinux policy module that defines the access rules for that application.

The process of building policy modules is shown in the next diagram. It also shows where CIL comes into play, even when the policy rules themselves are not written in CIL. For distributions that do not yet support CIL, semodule will directly go from the .pp file to the policy.## file.

Build process from policy rule to policy store

With the recent SELinux user space, the *.pp files (which are the SELinux policy modules) are considered to be written in a high-level language (HLL). Do not assume that this means they are human readable: these files are binary files. The consideration here is that SELinux wants to support writing SELinux policies in a number of formats, which it calls high-level languages, as long as it has a parser that can convert the files into CIL. Marking the binary module formats as high-level allowed the SELinux project to introduce the distinction between high-level languages and CIL in a backward-compatible manner.

When distributing SELinux policy modules, most Linux distributions place the *.pp SELinux policy modules inside /usr/share/selinux, usually within a subdirectory named after the policy store (such as targeted). There, these modules are ready for administrators to activate them.

When activating a module, the semodule command (part of the policycoreutils package) will copy those modules into a dedicated directory: /etc/selinux/targeted/modules/active/modules (RHEL) or /var/lib/selinux/mcs/active/modules (Gentoo). This location is defined by the version of the SELinux user space—more recent versions use the /var/lib location. When all modules are aggregated in a single location, the final policy binary is compiled, resulting in /etc/selinux/targeted/policy/policy.30 (or some other number) and loaded in memory.

On RHEL, the SELinux policies are provided by the selinux-policy-targeted (or -minimum or -mls) package. On Gentoo, they are provided by the various sec-policy/selinux-* packages (Gentoo uses separate packages for each module, reducing the number of SELinux policies that are loaded on an average system).

Bundling modules in a policy store

A policy store contains a single comprehensive policy, and only a single policy can be active on a system at any point in time. Administrators can switch policy stores, although this often requires the system to be rebooted and might even require relabeling the entire system (relabeling is the act of resetting the contexts on all files and resources available on that system).

The active policy on the system can be queried using sestatus (SELinux status, provided through the policycoreutils package), as follows:

# sestatus | grep Loaded policy
Loaded policy name:             targeted

In this example, the currently loaded policy (store) is named targeted. The policy name that SELinux will use upon its next reboot is defined in the /etc/selinux/config configuration file as the SELINUXTYPE parameter.

It is the init system of systems (be it a SysV-compatible init system or systemd) that is generally responsible for loading the SELinux policy, effectively activating SELinux support on the system. The init system reads the configuration, locates the policy store, and loads the policy file in memory. If the init system does not support this (in other words, it is not SELinux-aware) then the policy can be loaded through the load_policy command, part of the policycoreutils package.

Distinguishing between policies

The most common SELinux policy store names are strict, targeted, mcs, and mls. None of the names assigned to policy stores are fixed, though, so it is a matter of convention. Hence, it is recommended to consult the distribution documentation to verify what should be the proper name of the policy. Still, the name often provides some information about the SELinux options that are enabled through the policy.

Supporting MLS

One of the options that can be enabled is MLS support. If it’s disabled, the SELinux context will not have a fourth field with sensitivity information in it, making the contexts of processes and files look as follows:


To check whether MLS is enabled, it is sufficient to see whether the context indeed doesn’t contain such a fourth field, but it can also be acquired from the Policy MLS status line in the output of sestatus:

# sestatus | grep MLS
Policy MLS Status:            disabled

Another method would be to look into the pseudo file, /sys/fs/selinux/mls. A value of 0 means disabled, whereas a value of 1 means enabled:

# cat /sys/fs/selinux/mls

Policy stores that have MLS enabled are generally targeted, mcs and mls, whereas strict generally has MLS disabled.

Dealing with unknown permissions

Permissions (such as read, open, and lock) are defined both in the Linux kernel and in the policy itself. However, sometimes, newer Linux kernels support permissions that the current policy does not yet understand.

Take the block_suspend permission (to be able to block system suspension) as an example. If the Linux kernel supports (and checks) this permission but the loaded SELinux policy does not understand that permission yet, then SELinux has to decide how it should deal with the permission. SELinux can be configured to do one of the following actions:

  • allow: assume everything that is not understood is allowed
  • deny: assume no one is allowed to perform this action
  • reject: stop and halt the system

This is configured through the deny_unknown value. To see the state for unknown permissions, look for the Policy deny_unknown status line in sestatus:

# sestatus | grep deny_unknown
Policy deny_unknown status:   denied

Administrators can set this for themselves in the /etc/selinux/semanage.conf file through the handle-unknown variable (with allow, deny, or reject).

RHEL by default allows unknown permissions, whereas Gentoo by default denies them.

Supporting unconfined domains

An SELinux policy can be very strict, limiting applications as close as possible to their actual behavior, but it can also be very liberal in what applications are allowed to do. One of the concepts available in many SELinux policies is the idea of unconfined domains. When enabled, it means that certain SELinux domains (process contexts) are allowed to do almost anything they want (of course, within the boundaries of the regular Linux DAC permissions, which still hold) and only a select number of domains are truly confined (restricted) in their actions.

Unconfined domains have been brought forward to allow SELinux to be active on desktops and servers where administrators do not want to fully restrict the entire system, but only a few of the applications running on it. Generally, these implementations focus on constraining network-facing services (such as web servers and database management systems) while allowing end users and administrators to roam around unrestricted.

With other MAC systems, such as AppArmor, unconfinement is inherently part of the design of the system as they only restrict actions for well-defined applications or users. However, SELinux was designed to be a full mandatory access control system and thus needs to provide access control rules even for those applications that shouldn’t need any. By marking these applications as unconfined, almost no additional restrictions are imposed by SELinux.

We can see whether unconfined domains are enabled on the system through seinfo, which we use to query the policy for the unconfined_t SELinux type. On a system where unconfined domains are supported, this type will be available:

# seinfo -tunconfined_t

For a system where unconfined domains are not supported, the type will not be part of the policy:

# seinfo -tunconfined_t
ERROR: could not find datum for type unconfined_t

Most distributions that enable unconfined domains call their policy targeted, but this is just a convention that is not always followed. Hence, it is always best to consult the policy using seinfo. RHEL enables unconfined domains, whereas with Gentoo, this is a configurable setting through the unconfined USE flag.

Limiting cross-user sharing

When UBAC is enabled, certain SELinux types will be protected by additional constraints. This will ensure that one SELinux user cannot access files (or other specific resources) of another user, even when those users are sharing their data through the regular Linux permissions. UBAC provides some additional control over information flow between resources, but it is far from perfect. In its essence, it is made to isolate SELinux users from one another.

A constraint in SELinux is an access control rule that uses all parts of a context to make its decision. Unlike type-enforcement rules, which are purely based on the type, constraints can take the SELinux user, SELinux role, or sensitivity label into account. Constraints are generally developed once and then left untouched—most policy writers will not touch constraints during their development efforts.

Many Linux distributions, including RHEL, disable UBAC. Gentoo allows users to select whether or not they want UBAC through the Gentoo ubac USE flag (which is enabled by default).

Incrementing policy versions

While checking the output of sestatus, we see that there is also a notion of policy versions:

# sestatus | grep version
Max kernel policy version:      28

This version has nothing to do with the versioning of policy rules but with the SELinux features that the currently running kernel supports. In the preceding output, 28 is the highest policy version the kernel supports. Every time a new feature is added to SELinux, the version number is increased. The policy file itself (which contains all the SELinux rules loaded at boot time by the system) can be found in /etc/selinux/targeted/policy (where targeted refers to the policy store used, so if the system uses a policy store named strict, then the path would be /etc/selinux/strict/policy).

If multiple policy files exist, we can use the output of seinfo to find out which policy file is used:

# seinfo
Statistics for policy file: /etc/selinux/targeted/policy/policy.30
Policy Version & Type: v.30 (binary, mls)

The next table provides the current list of policy feature enhancements and the Linux kernel version in which that feature is introduced. Many of the features are only of concern to the policy developers, but knowing the evolution of the features gives us a good idea about the evolution of SELinux.


Linux kernel




The old API for SELinux, now deprecated.



Introduced the new API for SELinux.



Added support for conditional policy extensions.



Added support for IPv6.



Added support for fine-grained netlink socket permissions.



Added support for MLS.



Reduced the size of the access vector table.



Added support for MLS range transitions.



Introduced policy capabilities.



Added support for per-domain permissive mode.



Added support for explicit hierarchy (type bounds).



Added support for filename-based transitions.



Added support for role transitions for non-process classes.

Added support for role attributes.



Added support for flexible inheritance of user and role for newly created objects.



Added support for flexible inheritance of type for newly created objects.



Added support for attributes within SELinux constraints.



Added support for extended permissions and implemented first on IOCTL controls.

Enhanced SELinux XEN support.

History of SELinux feature evolution

By default, when an SELinux policy is built, the highest supported version as defined by the Linux kernel and libsepol (the library responsible for building the SELinux policy binary) is used. Administrators can force a version to be lower using the policy-version parameter in /etc/selinux/semanage.conf.

Different policy content

Besides the aforementioned policy capabilities, the main difference between policies (and distributions) is the policy content itself. We already covered that most distributions base their policy on the reference policy project. But although that project is considered the master for most distributions, each distribution has its own deviation from the main policy set.

Many distributions make extensive additions to the policy without directly passing the policies to the upstream reference policy project. There are several possible reasons why this is not directly done:

  • The policy enhancements or additions are still immature: Red Hat initially starts with policies being active but permissive, meaning the policies are not enforced. Instead, SELinux logs what it would have prevented and, based on those, logs the policies that are enhanced. This ensures that a policy is only ready after a few releases.
  • The policy enhancements or additions are too specific to the distribution: If a policy set is not reusable for other distributions, then some distributions will opt to keep those policies to themselves as the act of pushing changes to upstream projects takes quite some effort.
  • The policy enhancements or additions haven’t followed the upstream rules and guidelines: The reference policy has a set of guidelines that policies need to adhere to. If a policy set does not comply with these rules, then it will not be accepted.
  • The policy enhancements or additions are not implementing the same security model as the reference policy project wants: As SELinux is a very extensive mandatory access control system, it is possible to write completely different policies.
  • The distribution does not have the time or resources to push changes upstream.

This ensures that SELinux policies between distributions (and even releases of the same distribution) can, content-wise, be quite different. Gentoo for instance aims to follow the reference policy project closely, with changes being merged within a matter of weeks.


In this article, we saw that SELinux offers a more fine-grained access control mechanism on top of the Linux access controls. SELinux is implemented through Linux Security Modules and uses labels to identify its resources and processes based on ownership (user), role, type, and even the security sensitivity and categorization of the resource. We covered how SELinux policies are handled within an SELinux-enabled system and briefly touched upon how policy writers structure policies.

Linux distributions implement SELinux policies, which might be a bit different from each other based on supporting features, such as sensitivity labels, default behavior for unknown permissions, support for confinement levels, or specific constraints put in place such as UBAC. However, most of the policy rules themselves are similar and are even based on the same upstream reference policy project.

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