O'Reilly logo

SELinux by Bill McCarty

Stay ahead with the world's most comprehensive technology and business learning platform.

With Safari, you learn the way you learn best. Get unlimited access to videos, live online training, learning paths, books, tutorials, and more.

Start Free Trial

No credit card required

Monitoring SELinux

SELinux writes log entries that enable system administrators to monitor its operation. The following subsections explain the format of SELinux log messages, some logging subtleties, and how to use the Audit2allow utility to automatically generate rules to allow operations logged as denied.

SELinux Log Message Format

When a program attempts an operation that is checked by the SELinux security engine, SELinux may make a log entry. As more fully explained in Chapter 2, operations that are denied generally cause a log entry to be made, whereas permitted operations generally do not. However, SELinux policy rules can override this principle.

Apart from the timestamp and other information that accompanies every system log message, SELinux log messages have the following general format:

avc: result { operation } for pid=pid exe=exe path=opath dev=devno:ptno ino=node scontext=source tcontext=target tclass=class


A given SELinux log message may omit one or more of the attribute-value pairs given in the general format. Log messages include only the applicable attribute-value pairs.

The variable fields within the log message have the following meanings:


The value granted or denied, indicating whether SELinux permitted or prohibited the operation.


The operation that was attempted, such as read or write. SELinux defines about 150 operations. Appendix B summarizes the SELinux operations that can appear in log messages.


The process ID of the process that attempted the operation.


The absolute path of the text file (executable) associated with the process that attempted the operation.


The absolute path of the object on which the operation was attempted.


The block device number associated with the object on which the operation was attempted.


The partition number associated with the object on which the operation was attempted.


The inode number of the object on which the operation was attempted.


The security context of the process that attempted the operation.


The security context of the target object.


The type of the target object, such as file. Appendix A summarizes the SELinux object classes.

Let’s parse a typical log message, which follows:

avc:  denied  { write } for  pid=10400 exe=/usr/bin/nmap lport=255 
scontext=root:staff_r:nmap_t tcontext=root:staff_r:nmap_t tclass=rawip_socket

This message indicates that a write operation was denied. The process that attempted the operation, /usr/bin/nmap, had process ID 10400. The security context of the process was root:staff_r:nmap_t and the security context of the object was root:staff_r:nmap_t. The target object class was rawip_socket. In addition, the message indicates the logical (source) port which was requested, 255. So, the messages tells us that the security engine has prevented Nmap from writing to a socket.

Let’s now parse a log message that presents a common complication:

avc:  denied  { read } for  pid=12999 exe=/usr/bin/slocate name=slocate.db dev=03:02 
ino=391745 scontext=bill:staff_r:staff_t tcontext=system_u:object_r:var_lib_t tclass=file

This message indicates that a read operation was denied. The process that attempted the operation, /usr/bin/slocate, had process ID 12999.

When the object path appears in the log message, we immediately know the identity of the object. However, SELinux often does not include the object path. In such cases, we must determine the object’s identity from the information that is available. In this example, we have the device, partition, and inode numbers. We’ll identify the object by using these.

The log entry shows that the process attempted to access partition 2 of block device 3. If Linux kernel sources are installed, we can determine the identity of this device by searching the file /usr/src/linux/Documentation/devices.txt, which indicates that block device 3 is associated with /dev/hda. We can verify this result by issuing the ls command:

# ls -l /dev/hda
brw-rw----    1 root     disk       3,   0 Oct  4  2003 /dev/hda

If the devices.txt file is not available, we can search the /dev directory for a device having the indicated device number.

To determine the partition related to the log message, we can use the df command:

# df
Filesystem           1K-blocks      Used Available Use% Mounted on
/dev/hda1               102454     13311     83853  14% /boot
/dev/hda2              3854576   2930172    728600  81% /
/dev/hda4             73854600  65026572   5076380  93% /space
none                     63272         0     63272   0% /dev/shm

From the command output, we learn that partition 2, /dev/hda2, is associated with the root filesystem, /.

Skipping several intervening attribute-value pairs to which we’ll return in a moment, we learn from the tclass attribute that the object in question has type file. To determine the path associated with the file object, we can use the -inum option of the find command, which searches for a node having the specified inode number. The following command searches the filesystem mounted at / for a node having inode number 391745:

# find / -inum 391745

The file object is identified as the file /var/lib/slocate/slocate.db, which is not surprising in view of /usr/bin/slocate being the process that attempted the read operation.


Inodes can be deleted and reused. So, if enough system activity has occurred between generation of a log entry and an attempt to identify the referenced object by its inode number, the attempt is likely to fail or turn up an incorrect path.

Returning now to the attribute-value pairs we skipped, scontext and tcontext, we can infer the reason that led to denial of the operation. As indicated by the value of the scontext attribute, the slocate process was running in the security context bill:staff_r:staff_t. Apparently, this context is not permitted to perform the read operation on file objects having the type indicated by the value of the tcontext attribute, system_u:object_r:var_lib_t. The most likely cause is that the slocate process should have been run in some other context, such as sysadm_t.

SELinux Logging Subtleties

To avoid excessive overhead, SELinux attempts to curtail unnecessary logging. To do so, it uses separate strategies for permissive and enforcing mode.

In permissive mode, SELinux attempts to log each denial only once, avoiding a flood of identical and therefore redundant messages. To do so, SELinux maintains a cache of log entries. Before making a log entry, SELinux checks whether the entry resides in the cache. If so, SELinux suppresses the log entry.

Under some circumstances, this caching behavior may become confusing to a system administrator, who wonders why a denied operation is not accompanied by a log entry. This is particularly likely if a long interval passes between the original denial that resulted in a cache entry and subsequent denials. If you suspect that you’re confronted with such a situation, you can prompt SELinux to clear its cache of log entries. You can do so either of two ways:

  • Change to the policy source directory and reload the security policy:

cd /etc/security/selinux/src/policy
make reload
  • Toggle between modes. For instance, in Fedora Core, you can issue the commands:

setenforce 1
setenforce 0

In enforcing mode (1), SELinux limits the rate at which log entries are made. This is necessary because some programs don’t properly check error return codes. So, when SELinux prohibits an operation, these programs could cause large numbers of repeated log entries if SELinux didn’t have limits on logging.

When rate limiting is occurring, log entries are lost. Obviously, this can complicate diagnosis and troubleshooting. Unfortunately, SELinux does not provide system administrators with a means of controlling its rate-limiting functionality. Nor does SELinux provide a log entry informing a system administrator that a rate limit has been initiated or terminated. Consequently, system administrators should bear in mind the possibility that SELinux log entries may be missing during intervals of high activity. Eventually, SELinux developers hope to stop depending on the system logging facility by implementing a separate logging facility designed expressly for SELinux.


Occasionally, you may find that your console is being flooded by log messages from SELinux or another facility. When this occurs, you can regain control of the console by turning off the logging of kernel messages to the console. To do so, issue the command:

dmesg -n 1

The Audit2allow Utility

SELinux includes a special utility, Audit2allow, that scans the system log, looking for entries pertaining to denied operations and generating a file of allow rules that—if added to the security policy—would prevent those operations from being denied. Using the utility is a nontrivial matter, because the rules it generates are not always optimal. To ensure proper security, it’s often necessary to define new domains or make other structural changes rather than blindly add the generated rules to the security policy. Chapter 9 gives tips and procedures for using the Audit2allow utility.

With Safari, you learn the way you learn best. Get unlimited access to videos, live online training, learning paths, books, interactive tutorials, and more.

Start Free Trial

No credit card required