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How To Restrict Log In Capabilities of Users on Ubuntu

Posted Sep 5, 2013 38.7k views Security Ubuntu


A fundamental part of system administration is configuring and managing users and groups. Part of this task involves monitoring the log in capabilities of all system entities.

In this guide, we will introduce the basic ideas behind user management and authentication logging.

We will be exploring these concepts on an Ubuntu 12.04 VPS, but you can follow along on any up-to-date Linux distribution.

We said in the previous section that some of the users on your server may be associated with services, and are not intended to be used as regular accounts.

In this section, we will discuss how to restrict the login capabilities of these users in a number of ways.

How To Restrict Access With /etc/passwd

One method of restricting the login capabilities is to set the account's login shell to a special value.

An example of this is the "messagebus" user in the "/etc/passwd" file:

less /etc/passwd | grep messagebus

The final value is the shell or the command that is run when the login is successful. In this case, the value is set to "/bin/false".

If we try to log in to the messagebus user as root, we will see that nothing happens. We are not switched to the new user:

sudo su messagebus

Let's try to log into the "sshd" user:

sudo su sshd
This account is currently not available.

We get this informative message because the shell for sshd is set to "/usr/sbin/nologin":

less /etc/passwd | grep sshd

So, how do you restrict a user's log in using these methods?

We can use the "usermod" tool to change the shell from a legitimate shell, to one of these dummy values:

sudo usermod -s /usr/sbin/nologin username

How To Restrict Access With /etc/shadow

Another, similar method of restricting access is to use the "/etc/shadow" file. This file contains the hashed password values of every user on the system.

You can see the hashed passwords by typing:

sudo less /etc/shadow
. . .

The second field (the one starting with "$6$r79Dod3Y#3..." in the first line) contains the hashed password value.

As you can see, the system accounts have an asterisk (*) instead of a complex hash value. Accounts with an asterisk in the second field have not had a password set and are not able to authenticate by password until this changes.

We can disable a password value (in effect, making an account with a password equivalent to the asterisk value), by preceding the hash value with an exclamation point (!).

Two tools can do this by "locking" the specified account.

The passwd command can be locked with the "-l" flag and unlocked with the "-u" flag:

sudo passwd -l username
sudo less /etc/shadow | grep username

As you can see, the hashed password is retained, but made invalid by placing a "!" in front of it.

The account can be unlocked again by typing:

sudo passwd -u username

Equivalent operations are available using the "usermod" command. The corresponding flags are "-L" for locking, and "-U" for unlocking:

sudo usermod -L username
sudo usermod -U username

Note: while this method of restricting access will function correctly for all password-based logins, methods of logging in without a password (for example, with ssh keys) will still remain available.

Considering using another method of locking down the account if these methods are configured.

How To Restrict Access With /etc/nologin

There may be situations in extreme cases where you need to disable all account logins, other than root.

This could be because of in-depth maintenance, or because one or more of your user accounts has been compromised.

In any case, this can be easily accomplished simply by creating a file at "/etc/nologin":

sudo touch /etc/nologin

This will prevent any account from logging in that does not have superuser privileges.

With an empty "/etc/nologin" file, this just dumps the user back to their local shell without any explanation.

What is really happening is that the contents of the file are returned to the user. If we add a message, users will receive an explanation for the login failure:

sudo sh -c 'echo "Planned maintenance.  Log in capabilities will be restored at 1545 UTC" > /etc/nologin'

Now when we try to log in with a password, we will receive the message we set up:

ssh user@host
user@host's password:
Planned maintenance.  Log in capabilities will be restored at 1545 UTC

Connection closed by host

Root users can still log in normally. Simply remove the "/etc/nologin" file to reverse the login restriction:

sudo rm /etc/nologin


User authentication on Linux is a relatively flexible area of system management. There are many ways of accomplishing the same objective with very simple tools.

You should now know how to restrict usage through various methods.

In the next section, we will discuss how to monitor user logins.

Authentication, Part 1 - How To View System Users in Linux on Ubuntu

Authentication, Part 2 - How To Restrict Log In Capabilities of Users on Ubuntu

Authentication, Part 3 - How To Monitor System Authentication Logs on Ubuntu

By: Justin Ellingwood


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