libptytty(3) LIBPTYTTY libptytty(3)

libptytty - OS independent and secure pty/tty and utmp/wtmp/lastlog handling

cc ... -lptytty
#include <libptytty.h>
// C++
ptytty *pty = ptytty::create ();
if (!pty->get ())
  // error allocating pty
if (we want utmp)
  pty->login (process_pid, 0, "");
else if (we want utmp AND wtmp/lastlog)
  pty->login (process_pid, 1, "");
// we are done with it
delete pty;
// C
PTYTTY pty = ptytty_create ();
if (!ptytty_get (pty))
  // error allocating pty
if (we want utmp)
  ptytty_login (pty, process_pid, 0, "");
else if (we want utmp AND wtmp/lastlog)
  ptytty_login (pty, process_pid, 1, "");
// we are done with it
ptytty_delete (pty);

See also the eg/ directory, which currently contains the c-sample.c file that spawns a login shell from C using libptytty.

Libptytty is a small library that offers pseudo-tty management in an OS-independent way. It was created out of frustration over the many differences of pty/tty handling in different operating systems for the use inside "rxvt-unicode".

In addition to offering mere pty/tty management, it also offers session database support (utmp and optional wtmp/lastlog updates for login shells).

It also supports fork'ing after startup and dropping privileges in the calling process, so in case the calling process gets compromised by the user starting the program there is less to gain, as only the helper process runs with privileges (e.g. setuid/setgid), which reduces the area of attack immensely.

Libptytty is written in C++, but it also offers a C-only API.

libptytty uses "CMake" as build system. To build libptytty, install "CMake" and run the following commands from either the libptytty source directory or a separate build directory:

cmake -DCMAKE_INSTALL_PREFIX=<prefix> -DBUILD_SHARED_LIBS=ON <path/to/libptytty>
cmake --build .
cmake --install .

It is of paramount importance that you at least read the following paragraph!

If you write a typical terminal-like program that just wants one or more ptys, you should call the "ptytty::init ()" method (C: "ptytty_init ()" function) as the very first thing in your program:

int main (int argc, char *argv[])
   // do nothing here
   ptytty::init ();
   // in C: ptytty_init ();
   // initialise, parse arguments, etc.

This checks whether the program runs setuid or setgid. If yes then it will fork a helper process and drop privileges.

Some programs need finer control over if and when this helper process is started, and if and how to drop privileges. For those programs, the methods "ptytty::use_helper" and "ptytty::drop_privileges" (and possibly "ptytty::sanitise_stdfd") are more useful.


The default way to initialise libptytty. Must be called immediately as the first thing in the "main" function, or earlier e.g. during static construction time. The earlier, the better.

This method calls "sanitise_stdfd" and then checks whether the program runs with setuid/setgid permissions and, if yes, spawns a helper process for pty/tty management. It then drops the privileges completely, so the actual program runs without setuid/setgid privileges.

On failure, this method throws a "ptytty_error" exception.

Tries to start a helper process that retains privileges even when the calling process does not. This is usually called from "ptytty::init" when it detects that the program is running setuid or setgid, but can be called manually if it is inconvenient to drop privileges at startup, or when you are not running setuid/setgid but want to drop privileges (e.g. when running as a root-started daemon).

This method will try not to start more than one helper process. The same helper process can usually be used both from the process starting it and all its fork'ed (not exec'ed) children.

On failure, this method throws a "ptytty_error" exception.

Drops privileges completely, i.e. sets real, effective and saved user id to the real user id. Useful to make sure that the process doesn't run with special privileges.

On failure, this method throws a "ptytty_error" exception.

Checks whether file descriptors 0, 1 and 2 (stdin, stdout and stderr) are valid (open) and, if not, connects them to /dev/tty or /dev/null if possible. This is necessary because libptytty might want to output error messages to those descriptors, which at the time of outputting the error message, might be connected to something unsuitable opened by the unsuspecting program itself (this can be a security issue).

On failure, this method throws a "ptytty_error" exception.

Utility method to send a file descriptor over a unix domain socket. Returns true if successful, false otherwise. This method is only exposed for your convenience and is not required for normal operation.
Utility method to receive a file descriptor over a unix domain socket. Returns the fd if successful and "-1" otherwise. This method is only exposed for your convenience and is not required for normal operation.
Creates new ptytty object. Creation does not yet do anything besides allocating the structure.

A static method is used because the actual ptytty implementation can differ at runtime, so you need a dynamic object creation facility.


These members contain the pty and tty file descriptors, respectively. They initially contain "-1" until a successful call to "ptytty::get".
Tries to find, allocate and initialise a new pty/tty pair. Returns "true" when successful.

If the helper process is running and there is a protocol error, this method throws a "ptytty_error" exception.

Creates an entry in the systems session database(s) (utmp, wtmp, lastlog). "cmd_pid" must be the pid of the process representing the session (such as the login shell), "login_shell" defines whether the session is associated with a login, which influences whether wtmp and lastlog entries are created, and "hostname" should identify the "hostname" the user logs in from, which often is the value of the "DISPLAY" variable or tty line in case of local logins.

Calling this method is optional. A session starts at the time of the login call and extends until the ptytty object is destroyed.

Closes the tty. Useful after forking in the parent/pty process.
Tries to make the pty/tty pair the controlling terminal of the current process. Useful after forking in the child/tty process.
On systems supporting special UTF-8 line disciplines (e.g. Linux), this tries to enable this discipline for the given pty. Can be called at any time to change the mode.

See "ptytty::init ()".
Creates a new opaque PTYTTY object and returns it. Do not try to access it in any way except by testing it for truthness (e.g. "if (pty) ...."). See "ptytty::create ()".
Return the pty file descriptor. See "pty->pty".
Return the tty file descriptor. See "pty->tty".
Destroys the PTYTTY object, freeing the pty/tty pair and cleaning up the utmp/wtmp/lastlog databases, if initialised/used. Same as "delete pty" in C++.
See "pty->get", returns 0 in case of an error, non-zero otherwise.
See "pty->login".
See "pty->close_tty".
See "pty->make_controlling_tty".
See "pty->set_utf8_mode".
See "ptytty::drop_privileges".
See "ptytty::use_helper".

To date, libptytty has been tested on the following platforms:

You kiddin'?

Emanuele Giaquinta <>, Marc Alexander Lehmann <>.

2021-07-27 2.0