User ID Definition

A user ID (UID) is a unique positive integer assigned by a Unix-like operating system to each user. Each user is identified to the system by its UID, and user names are generally used only as an interface for humans.

UIDs are stored, along with their corresponding user names and other user-specific information, in the /etc/passwd file, which can be read with the cat command as follows:

cat /etc/passwd

The third field contains the UID, and the fourth field contains the group ID (GID), which by default is equal to the UID for all ordinary users.

In the Linux kernels 2.4 and above, UIDs are unsigned 32-bit integers that can represent values from zero to 4,294,967,296. However, it is advisable to use values only up to 65,534 in order to maintain compatibility with systems using older kernels or filesystems that can only accommodate 16-bit UIDs.

The UID of 0 has a special role: it is always the root account (i.e., the omnipotent administrative user). Although the user name can be changed on this account and additional accounts can be created with the same UID, neither action is wise from a security point of view.

The UID 65534 is commonly reserved for nobody, a user with no system privileges, as opposed to an ordinary (i.e., non-privileged) user. This UID is often used for individuals accessing the system remotely via FTP (file transfer protocol) or HTTP (hypertext transfer protocol).

UIDs 1 through 99 are traditionally reserved for special system users (sometimes called pseudo-users), such as wheel, daemon, lp, operator, news, mail, etc. These users are administrators who do not need total root powers, but who perform some administrative tasks and thus need more privileges than those given to ordinary users.

Some Linux distributions (i.e., versions) begin UIDs for non-privileged users at 100. Others, such as Red Hat, begin them at 500, and still others, such Debian, start them at 1000. Because of the differences among distributions, manual intervention can be necessary if multiple distributions are used in a network in an organization.

Also, it can be convenient to reserve a block of UIDs for local users, such as 1000 through 9999, and another block for remote users (i.e., users elsewhere on the network), such as 10000 to 65534. The important thing is to decide on a scheme and adhere to it.

Among the advantages of this practice of reserving blocks of numbers for particular types of users is that it makes it more convenient to search through system logs for suspicious user activity.

Contrary to popular belief, it is not necessary that each entry in the UID field be unique. However, non-unique UIDs can cause security problems, and thus UIDs should be kept unique across the entire organization. Likewise, recycling of UIDs from former users should be avoided for as long as possible.

Created July 22, 2005.
Copyright © 2005 The Linux Information Project. All Rights Reserved.