Upspin Access Control


This document describes the access control model for Upspin.

All such information is maintained by files in the Upspin name space itself. In particular, all the information necessary to decide the accessibility of an item in the tree under user U’s root is available to the Directory server holding U’s root.

Despite the length of this document, the general model is very simple. Plain text files describe what rights are granted, saying for instance that a given user may read files. These rules apply at the directory level and are inherited by subdirectories. By default, with no such access control files in a user’s tree, that user and only that user has the right to read or modify the files.


By user, we mean an account known to the Upspin Key service, identified by an e-mail-like name: Each valid user has a user root directory held on at least one Directory server. Each user proves identity to Upspin servers, their own and others’, using the user’s key pair registered in the central Key server.


A group identifies a list of users, the members of that group. Each group is associated with a single user, its owner, and the owner is implicitly a member of every group that the user owns.

The membership of a group is defined by the contents of a file in the Group subdirectory of the owner’s user root, and the path name of that file is the global name of the group. Within that file is a list of the members, separated by white space and/or commas.

For example, might define a group for her family. She would define that group by creating a file, say, and writing to it something like,

Once that file is created, the group called is defined to contain those users, plus herself, as members.

The full name is cumbersome, but as we will see in the next section, when wants to identify this group, it will usually be in the context of her own directory tree, and just the final component, family, is sufficient to identify it.

Group files are always readable and writable by the owner, and only the owner can create and edit them, but otherwise they act as regular items within the Upspin name space as far as client I/O is concerned.

Group files can be placed directly in the Group directory of the user’s root, or in subdirectories of that Group directory. The name of the group will always be the full Upspin path, including user name, of the group definition file. The advantage of using subdirectories is that the access control mechanisms of Upspin, which operate at the directory level (see the next section), make it possible to have a particular group’s membership be public or private as appropriate. Group files are plain files in all respects.

Access control model

Absent any other information, every item in the user’s Upspin tree is readable and writable only by the owner, that is, the user whose root begins the path name of the item. By default, then, is a file owned and accessible only by However, the access rights may be modified by the presence of an access control file in the directory foo that holds bar, or by an access control file in foo’s parent, and so on.

Access control files may be placed in any directory, including a user root. They define the access rights that apply to the directory itself, its contents, its subdirectories, and so on, recursively. However, if an access control file exists in a directory, the access rights it grants completely override those granted through the recursive inheritance mechanism, with some special exceptions for the owner. These exceptions are described below.

Access control files are named exactly Access. Like Group files, they are plain text files and are stored in the owner’s Upspin tree, only the owner may write them, and read access to the Access files themselves is granted by the Upspin access control mechanisms described here. The details about the format of the files are presented below; in this section we concentrate on the model itself.

As an example, if creates a file that grants read and “list” (directory search) access to, initially anyone in her family group can see the contents stored under any path name under, including the Access file itself. However, if she creates a directory, places a file in it called, and in that file gives only herself access permission, none of her family would be able to see the items in the secret directory or its subdirectories. The rights granted by the Access file in the secret directory would override rights granted by the one in the user root.

The family would however know the existence of the secret directory, since it lives in a directory with an Access file granting permission to search the directory. The directory itself could however be hidden by placing it one directory level deeper, as in private/secret, and placing the restricted Access file in the private directory. Then the family would know about the existence of the private directory but not the private/secret one.

Here is what the tree for that example would look like:
    User root
    Provides read and list access, granting access to family
    In same directory, so visible to family
    Restricts access to `` only; family cannot see inside
    Invisible to family
    Invisible to family

Access files may name any user or group in the Upspin system, including groups defined by owners other than the Access file’s owner. That is, an Access file may identify a group from another server altogether; may wish to grant access to or to, his family group.

As a convenience, if an Access file names a group whose owner is the Access file’s owner, which we expect to be the common case, the prefix up to /Group/ may be elided from the entry in the file. For example, inside the top-level Access file mentioned above, the name family could be used as a shorthand for and work/friends as a shorthand for

As mentioned above, there are expansions of the access rules for the owner. For items in the owner’s own tree, the following rights are granted:

Moreover, only the owner is allowed to create or modify an Access or Group file regardless of the rights granted by Access files.

All other rights for the owner are defined by the contents of the Access files.

Encrypted packings (described in the Upspin Security document) in Upspin also have the effect of limiting who can read file contents, by only wrapping the file decryption key for certain readers. The intent is that this list of readers derives from the Access file, and will be semi-automatically updated when the Access file is changed or when readers’ public keys are changed, on an as-available basis.

Note that, unlike for instance in Unix, the rights for a file and its directory are defined completely by the Access file that applies, regardless of rights closer to the root. For instance, if a user has access to read a file named (ignoring the owner name) /a/b/file as specified by /a/b/Access, that right is granted even if the directories /, /a or /a/b are not listable by that user. Moreover, the full name /a/b/file is visible to that user regardless of the rights in the parent directories. Thus one may give access to a file or directory without providing access to the intervening directories (other than, of course, the right to know the full path).

Format of Access files

Each permission granted by an Access file gives specific rights to an associated list of users and groups. There are two separate sets of rights, one for directories and one for plain items, that is, files. For files the rights are:

For directories, the rights are:

Note there is no such thing as execute permission in the manner of Unix. Some implementations may choose to interpret Read as execute permission, but none is required to do so. Upspin has no concept of “execute”.

Each line of an Access file has two colon-separated fields (white space is ignored across the line). The first is the name of a right, the second is a space- or comma-separated non-empty list of users, groups, or wildcards (described in the next section). The rights are spelled Read, Write, Create, List and Delete, are case-insensitive, and may be abbreviated to the first character (upper- or lower-case R,W, C, L, or D). Also, a set of rights may be comma-separated for grouping. An example:

r: family,
w,c,list: family

This example defines that anyone in the family, plus, has permission to read items, but only the family is allowed to write items, to create new items, or to see what items are present. Because there is no delete right list in this example, no one is allowed to delete items from this directory, even the owner (except that, the owner of this Access file, can as always delete the Access file itself or update it to provide delete access). These rights override any granted by higher-level Access files. In particular, even though there is no explicit delete right granted here, this Access file defines that no one has delete rights in this directory, regardless of what higher-placed Access files may say.


Inside Access and Group files, the wildcard character * (asterisk) means “all rights”. Thus one can say

*: family

as a shorthand for

read: family
write: family
list: family
create: family
delete: family

The user name all (case is ignored) means “any authenticated Upspin user”. The asterisked user name * means any authenticated user whose account is in the domain.

To allow anyone with an Upspin account to read items, this line in the relevant Access file

read: all

will serve; to allow anyone to do anything (which is unwise!),

*: all

The “all” wildcard has a couple of restrictions, to make it harder to introduce it accidentally. First, it must be the only user mentioned on the line within the Access file. Also, to make sure that someone placing a group name in an Access file doesn’t unintentionally publish data to the world it is not permitted anywhere in Group files.

As a side note: a user-name wildcard such as * applied to the read right can only provide genuine read access if the item being read is not encrypted, or if every user in the domain has a key wrapped for the item (see the Upspin Security document), which is impractical at best. In future, Upspin may provide a mechanism for some sort of key mechanism that would allow encrypted files to be accessible by everyone in an organization, but that has not been done.

Encoding and access for Access and Group files

Group and Access files are plain UTF-8-encoded text files and are always stored using plain packing with integrity checking (LINK). They cannot be stored as encrypted files as this would prevent them being readable by the servers that enforce the permissions they grant.

Also, if an Access or Group file in user U’s tree mentions a Group file from user V’s tree, user V must explicitly grant public read access for the Group file there so that U’s tree, which is running as some other, administrative user, can read V’s Group file. As an example, if has a Group file that names the group, then should add a file granting public read access to that directory. That Access file could say just

read: all

which would declare that the group is publicly known. In this example we put the Group file in a public subdirectory. That is not required—public is not a special name—but is a good convention.

In practice, we expect most groups to be local to the owner’s tree, with no need for explicit access controls except for the occasional public group such as a social circle.

Errors and discoverability

One goal of the design of access controls in Upspin is that a user cannot easily discover valid names in the Upspin name space unless granted permission to do so. As a result, under some circumstances operations return “private” errors rather than “permission denied” errors if the operation fails.

Generally, if an operation fails because the user has no access rights at all in the corresponding directory, the operation returns an error that means “information withheld for privacy reasons”. If the user has some access rights but not those required, the operation returns “permission denied”.

There is one special case supporting this model. For the Glob (directory search) operation, if permission is not granted to see a particular item, rather than return “permission denied” the operation simply elides the offending item’s information from the returned list.


The presence of links affects the access control mechanisms because the owner must also grant the right to indirect through the link.

If the evaluation of an Upspin name reaches a link node, the Directory server holding the link entry returns the DirEntry (the data structure in the API that describes the item stored with a given name) for the link itself, with the special error code ErrFollowLink. The caller can then take the Link field from the returned DirEntry and retry the original operation with that path, again subject to access controls. (These operations are handled automatically by the Upspin client library.)

To step through a link this way, the user must have some access right for the link itself. Any right will do (List, Read, Write, Create, or Delete). The reason that any right is sufficient to grant access is that the caller might be evaluating the name for any operation, and the access controls for the link should be consistent. Also, it simplifies the implementation to allow the fine-grained check to happen once evaluation reaches the final, non-linked name.

If the caller has no access rights for the link, the error returned is an “information withheld” error, hiding the existence of the link (and its target) from the caller. That is, if the caller has no permission to see the link, the caller cannot discover that the link exists.


Snapshots, which are trees that provide a backup mechanism in the reference implementation of the Directory server, have special access control rules. The snapshot of the tree for has root Typically will have the same keys as so can decrypt items stored in her snapshot.

Only the owner of a snapshot (In this case, or can access the tree or its contents. Moreover, even the owner has limited rights because the snapshot tree is read-only: the tree is maintained and updated by the server but cannot be modified with Upspin calls to the DirServer.

For a brief discussion of user names and + suffixes, see the Overview document’s section on users.

Appendix: Summary of access rules

The details of which rights are checked for which operations are summarized in this section.

DirServer operations and the rights they check are:

As always, if the name steps through a link, the caller must have some access rights for the link entry itself.

For snapshots, once the snapshot tree is initialized it behaves as if the tree has an Access file with (for, list,read

and the owner’s special rights for Access and Group files is rescinded.