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What Is a Superuser?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Nancy Fann-Im
  • Last Modified Date: 21 September 2014
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    Conjecture Corporation
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A superuser is an account on a computer that has access to all files and can execute any type of command. These unlimited privileges are necessary for system administration tasks but they can be dangerous in the hands of a regular user. For security reasons, it is advisable to create secondary accounts for other users on a computer to protect it from accidents or intentionally malicious activities.

This account is also known as the root in some operating systems. When someone is logged in as a superuser, that person has full power over the system. It is possible to install and uninstall software, change key system settings, and engage in other activities. These may be necessary for an administrator who needs to configure a system or make changes for a user. They are not as critical for a casual user.

In office environments, administrators typically create limited accounts for personnel. This allows people to open and use programs, create and change files, and perform other basic tasks. They cannot configure the system or install new programs. This prevents issues like accidental changes to printer settings, or the installation of software with hidden malicious code. If the user needs to make a system change, that person can contact a system administrator for help.

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It is also important to avoid using a superuser account for regular computer activities. System administrators may have one superuser account and then a regular less privileged account. For activities like research, sending email, and so forth, they can log in with the limited account. When they need to change settings and engage in other administrative activities, they can switch to the more privileged account.

For operating system security, it is important to separate accounts and tasks. If a user does not need superuser authority or access, that person should not have it. Such accounts can become targets for hackers and crackers, and they can be dangerous if a computer user is not very familiar with the operating system. System administrators can decide on what level of access would be appropriate.

Some software programs, especially content management systems for websites, borrow the superuser model. The site administrator can upload and publish content, schedule, change themes, and engage in other activities. People with lesser account privileges can engage in fewer activities. Some programs separate these out into administrators, editors, writers, and subscribers, each with its own level of deescalating privilege.

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