Skip to content

Click on each book below to review & buy on Amazon.

As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

CompTIA Linux+ XK0-005 - 2.4 - Executing Commands as Another User

Linux offers several tools and methods for executing commands as another user, which is an essential aspect of system administration and security. This guide provides an in-depth understanding of how to leverage these tools effectively, ensuring that users can perform tasks under different user identities safely and efficiently. We will explore the use of commands like su, sudo, and pkexec, along with the configuration of sudoers files and PolicyKit rules. These tools are used for maintaining the security and integrity of a Linux system, allowing for controlled access to administrative functions and the execution of privileged commands.

su Command

The su command in Linux is a fundamental utility for switching user context within a shell session. It stands for "substitute user" and is particularly useful when you need to execute commands or access resources available to another user on the system, including the root user. The command is simple but powerful, offering a straightforward way to assume the identity and environment of another user temporarily.

Basic Usage of su

The typical usage of su involves specifying the username of the account to which you want to switch. If no username is provided, su defaults to switching to the root user. The command is invoked in the following way:

su - [username]

Upon executing this command, you will be prompted to enter the password for the specified user account. Successful authentication grants you access to the target user's shell environment.

Key Features of the su Command

  • Switching to Root: By default, without a username, su switches to the root user. This is commonly used for performing tasks that require administrative privileges.
  • Loading the User Environment: The - option, often used as su -, ensures that the shell environment of the target user is loaded. This includes their home directory, shell preferences, and environment variables. It's an essential aspect of the command, ensuring that the user's environment is accurately replicated.
  • Authentication Requirement: To switch to another user account using su, the password for that account is required. This security measure ensures that unauthorized users cannot easily switch to other accounts, especially to the root user.
  • Exiting the User Shell: To revert to your original user account, you can exit the substituted user's environment by typing exit or pressing Ctrl+D. This action ends the session as the substituted user and returns you to the previous user's shell.

Examples and Considerations

Here's a practical example of using the su command:

su - alice

This command attempts to switch to the user 'alice'. You'll be prompted to enter Alice's password. Once authenticated, you are operating as Alice, with all her user privileges and environment settings.

In summary, the su command is an important tool for system administration in Linux, allowing for flexibility in user management and access control. It's particularly important for tasks that require temporary privileges elevation or access to resources restricted to specific user accounts.

sudo Command

The sudo command in Linux is an indispensable tool for system administration. It stands for "superuser do" and is used to execute commands with elevated privileges, typically as the root user. This command is essential in environments where multiple users have access to a system but need to perform specific administrative tasks without full superuser access.

Using sudo for Command Execution

The primary function of sudo is to run commands with elevated privileges. Here's how you typically use it:

  • Prefix the command you wish to run with sudo. For instance:

    sudo systemctl restart apache2

    This command would restart the Apache web server with root privileges.

  • After entering the command, you'll be prompted for your password. This is your user password, not the root password.

  • If your user account is authorized in the sudoers file for the command, it executes with elevated privileges. Otherwise, an error message indicating insufficient permissions is displayed.

Key Options and Flexibility

sudo provides several options for more control and flexibility:

  • -u, --user <username>: Run the command as a specified user.
  • -s, --shell: Execute the command in a shell as the target user.
  • -E, --preserve-env: Preserve your environment when running the command.
  • -i, --login: Initiates a login shell as the target user, setting environment variables and user settings as if the user had logged in directly.

In conclusion, the sudo command is a fundamental aspect of Linux administration, providing a secure way to delegate administrative tasks. It allows users to perform specific privileged actions without needing full superuser access, thus enhancing security and manageability.

sudo Configuration Files

In Linux, the /etc/sudoers file is central to the configuration of the sudo command. This file determines who can use sudo and what they can do with it. Managing the /etc/sudoers file is a critical task for system administrators, involving careful editing to ensure correct permissions and security.

The Role of /etc/sudoers

The /etc/sudoers file controls two main aspects:

  1. User Permissions: It defines which users or groups can use sudo and the extent of their privileges.
  2. Command Restrictions: It specifies which commands can be executed with elevated privileges and any conditions or restrictions associated with these commands.

Key Elements in /etc/sudoers

The file is structured with various directives and configurations:

  • User Specifications: Dictate permissions for individual users or groups.
  • Command Aliases: Facilitate the grouping of commands for easier management.
  • Defaults: Set global configurations like timeout settings and logging options.

Configuring User Permissions and Command Restrictions

In the /etc/sudoers file, the configuration of user permissions and command restrictions is key to ensuring that sudo is used safely and effectively. This section highlights how to define which users have sudo privileges and the extent of those privileges, how to group commands for easy management, and how to apply specific restrictions to these commands.

  1. User Permissions:

    username   ALL=(ALL:ALL) ALL

    This line grants username the ability to execute any command as any user and group, representing broad sudo privileges.

  2. Command Aliases:

    Cmnd_Alias WEB_SERVICES = /bin/systemctl restart apache2, /bin/systemctl restart nginx

    Here, service restart commands are grouped under a single alias, making it easier to manage and assign permissions for these specific tasks.

  3. Applying Specific Command Restrictions:


    This configuration allows username to execute the commands defined in WEB_SERVICES without being prompted for a password, streamlining processes that need to be run frequently or automatically.

  4. Setting Defaults:

    Defaults logfile=/var/log/sudo.log

    This sets a custom log file for sudo operations, aiding in monitoring and auditing sudo activities.

While the /etc/sudoers file can be directly edited with a text editor, this approach is risky and can lead to syntax errors or even lockouts. To mitigate these risks, Linux provides the visudo command, a specialized editor designed specifically for safely modifying the /etc/sudoers file. visudo checks for syntax errors and helps maintain the integrity of the file. In the next section, we will delve deeper into how visudo functions and its importance in managing sudo configurations securely and efficiently.

visudo Command

The visudo command in Linux is the recommended tool for editing the /etc/sudoers file. It's designed to provide a safe environment to make changes, preventing common errors that could potentially lock administrators out of vital system functions.

Essential Functions of visudo

visudo primarily focuses on two important tasks:

  1. Syntax Validation: It checks for syntax errors in the sudoers file. This is a crucial feature since errors in this file can render sudo inoperable, leading to significant administrative access issues.
  2. Preventing Concurrent Editing: It locks the sudoers file against simultaneous edits, thereby reducing the risk of file corruption or conflicting configurations.

How to Use visudo

To edit the /etc/sudoers file with visudo, execute:

sudo visudo

This command opens the sudoers file in the system's default editor, ensuring that all changes are checked for syntax errors.

visudo Options

visudo offers several useful command options:

  • -c, --check: This option performs a syntax check on the sudoers file, verifying its correctness without the risk of opening and editing the file, thus preventing potential misconfigurations.
  • -f <file>, --file=<file>: It enables the editing of an alternative file instead of the default sudoers file, providing flexibility for managing multiple sudoers configurations or testing changes in a non-production environment.
  • -q, --quiet: By minimizing output to only error messages, this option is particularly useful in scripting scenarios where standard output can clutter logs or obscure important error information.
  • -s, --strict: This option enhances security by enforcing a stricter set of syntax rules, helping to catch subtle errors that could lead to security vulnerabilities or misconfigured sudo privileges.

Handling Syntax Errors

An important feature of visudo is its handling of syntax errors. For example, if you accidentally introduce a syntax error, such as a typo or mis-formatted line, visudo will alert you when you attempt to save and exit. It provides a prompt with options:

  • e: Edit the sudoers file again to fix the error.
  • x: Exit without saving the changes, thus avoiding any risk of corrupting the file.
  • Q: Quit and save changes despite the error (not recommended due to the risk of system access issues).

Here is an example:

/etc/sudoers:13:19: syntax error
What now? 
Options are:
  (e)dit sudoers file again
  e(x)it without saving changes to sudoers file
  (Q)uit and save changes to sudoers file (DANGER!)

Using visudo for editing the /etc/sudoers file is a best practice for Linux administrators. It not only ensures the integrity of sudo configurations but also safeguards against syntax errors that could compromise system security.

PolicyKit Rules

PolicyKit is a component in Linux that offers a more nuanced approach to granting permissions for privileged operations, compared to the traditional sudo method. It provides fine-grained control over specific actions, allowing administrators to define detailed policies about who can perform certain tasks on the system.

Creating and Managing PolicyKit Rules

PolicyKit rules define access controls to specific system operations, particularly for non-root users. These rules are a more granular and flexible alternative to traditional sudo permissions, allowing for detailed control over system actions. PolicyKit achieves this through two main types of rules: Authorization Rules and Action Rules. Each plays a specific role in determining who can do what on a system.

  1. Authorization Rules: These rules define the permissions for users or groups to perform certain actions. They specify who is allowed to execute specific tasks, based on user identity or group membership.
  2. Action Rules: These rules specify the actual actions or commands that users are authorized to execute. They provide the detailed definitions of what operations can be performed, further refining the control provided by PolicyKit.

Defining Authorization Rules

Authorization rules are generally stored in the /etc/polkit-1/rules.d/ directory. Each rule is written in a JavaScript-like syntax in files with a .rules extension. Here's an example:

polkit.addRule(function(action, subject) {
    if ( == 'org.example.customaction') {
        return polkit.Result.YES;

In this example, the rule grants permission to perform the org.example.customaction action.

Setting Up Action Rules

Action rules define the specific operations allowed and are stored in /usr/share/polkit-1/actions/. These are typically XML files that describe the actions, their descriptions, and the default permissions. An example of an action rule:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<!DOCTYPE policyconfig PUBLIC "-//freedesktop//DTD PolicyKit Policy Configuration 1.0//EN" "">

    <action id="org.example.customaction">
        <description>Custom Action</description>
        <message>Executing custom action requires administrative privileges.</message>
        <annotate key="org.freedesktop.policykit.exec.path">/usr/bin/custom-action</annotate>
        <annotate key="org.freedesktop.policykit.exec.allow_gui">true</annotate>


In this example, the action rule defines the org.example.customaction action. It provides a description, a message to display when authorization is required, and sets the default behavior for different user states. It also annotates the executable path and specifies that GUI authentication is allowed.

Practical Applications of PolicyKit

PolicyKit is particularly useful in desktop environments for tasks that require elevated permissions but are initiated by non-root users. For example, mounting a drive, changing system settings, or managing users. It offers a more secure and flexible approach than sudo for these types of operations.

Understanding and implementing PolicyKit rules is an advanced aspect of Linux system administration. It allows for more specific and secure control over system operations, especially in environments where multiple users interact with system settings and resources.

pkexec Command

The pkexec command is used for executing programs with administrative privileges. It's part of the PolicyKit framework and serves as an alternative to traditional methods like su and sudo, offering enhanced security features and more granular control over permissions.

pkexec allows authorized users to execute programs as another user, typically the superuser (root), following the policies defined in PolicyKit. It's designed to replace older commands like gksu and gksudo, providing a more secure mechanism for handling privileged operations, especially in graphical environments.

Basic Usage of pkexec

The syntax for pkexec is straightforward:

pkexec [options] <command>

When you run a command with pkexec, it prompts for authentication (usually the user's password). Upon successful authentication, the specified command is executed with the elevated privileges.

Key Features and Considerations

When using the pkexec command, it's important to understand its unique features and how they impact its use for executing privileged actions. These features set pkexec apart from other methods like sudo, offering distinct advantages in terms of security, flexibility, and integration with the PolicyKit framework.

  • PolicyKit Integration: pkexec relies on PolicyKit for determining the authorization policies. This means the actions permitted with pkexec are defined in PolicyKit's configuration files, providing a detailed and secure way to manage permissions.
  • Granular Permission Control: Unlike sudo, which grants broad permissions, pkexec can be configured to allow specific actions, making it more secure and precise.
  • GUI and CLI Compatibility: pkexec works well in both graphical and command-line environments, making it versatile for various types of applications.
  • Environment Variables and Security: When executing commands, pkexec sanitizes the environment to a safe state. This reduces the risk of security vulnerabilities that can arise from inheriting an unsecure environment.

Example Usage of pkexec

The pkexec command's utility becomes evident with practical examples, illustrating how it facilitates administrative tasks in both graphical and command-line interfaces. Let's consider a specific example to demonstrate its usage:

Running a Graphical File Manager with Administrative Privileges:

One of the most common scenarios for using pkexec is when you need to manage system files through a graphical user interface. For example, if you want to open the Nautilus file manager with root privileges, you can do so by executing:


Upon running this command, a dialog box will prompt you for your password. After successful authentication, Nautilus opens with elevated privileges, enabling you to access and modify protected system files and directories. This method is particularly useful for tasks that require a visual file management interface, offering a more intuitive way to handle files compared to command-line operations.


This guide has explored various methods and tools for executing commands as another user, each serving specific needs and scenarios. From the su and sudo commands to the fine-grained control offered by PolicyKit and pkexec, Linux provides a rich set of capabilities for managing user permissions and executing privileged operations.

Support DTV Linux

Click on each book below to review & buy on Amazon. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

NordVPN ®: Elevate your online privacy and security. Grab our Special Offer to safeguard your data on public Wi-Fi and secure your devices. I may earn a commission on purchases made through this link.