Getting the current user in macOS – Update

I recently posted an article on how to get the current user in macOS. If you read through that entire post, it’ll be obvious that it was actually an excuse to write about the deprecation of python 2 and /bin/bash and the situation with sh ‘compatible’ code.

The ‘tl;dr’ of that post was to stop using the python one-liner and use this scutil based one-liner, based on Erik Berglund’s post, instead.

zsh and bash scripts

loggedInUser=$( scutil <<< "show State:/Users/ConsoleUser" | awk '/Name :/ && ! /loginwindow/ { print $3 }' )

sh scripts

loggedInUser=$( echo "show State:/Users/ConsoleUser" | scutil | awk '/Name :/ && ! /loginwindow/ { print $3 }' )

From now on, I will call these the ‘SystemConfiguration’ solution (this also includes the python one-liner). Both the python and the scutil based one-liners go through the SystemConfiguration framework to get at the desired information: which user is using the ‘Console?’

The ‘console’ in this case is an abstract definition, which encompasses the screen output and most inputs. I could not find a clear definition of what the ‘Console’ is exactly on macOS. (If you can point me to one, I’d be grateful.) But it serves to think of the console as all the processes, inputs and outputs attached to a user’s login session.

The other one-liner

There is another solution that keeps popping up in MacAdmins Slack and blog posts.

loggedInUser=$(stat -f %Su /dev/console)

(The stat solution.) This certainly looks much shorter and simpler. But does it return the same in all situations? Is it actually the same?

Testing the Edge

I have done some testing with Fast User Switching and a second remote Screen Sharing session. These are the weird edge cases for which the original python one-liner was devised.

I had a remote ssh session open from my main Mac while I logged two test users in and out of a second test Mac. I ran the commands for the SystemConfiguration and stat solutions in the ssh session, and compared the return values.

In (nearly) all multiple user sessions combinations that I tested, both the SystemConfiguration and the stat solution return the same value.

It is worth pointing out, that when you have two users with graphical sessions at the same time, neither of the two solutions will actually return the “currently” active user session, but the user owning the sessions that was last logged in to. This is especially relevant when someone use Screen Sharing to create a remote graphical session on an Mac. In this case both methods will return the last user that logged in, even though both users currently have active sessions.

How the stat solution works

The stat command shows the user owning the /dev/console file. When we look at that ‘file’ with the ls command:

> ls -al /dev/console  
crw-------  1 armin  staff    /dev/console

We get a file type (the first character of the listing) of ‘c’ which represents a ‘character special file.’ All the ‘files’ in /dev are of this file type. When you look closely you will ‘files’ in here representing the disks connected to your Mac (disk*), the Bluetooth devices (cu.*), and some other weird ‘files.’

This stems back to the Unix underpinnings of macOS where everything has a representation in the file system hierarchy, whether it is actual data on a disk or not. The ‘files’ we are seeing here are an abstraction of devices and other objects in the system.

With that background in mind, it should be clear that we are looking at the same data from the system, abstracted in different ways. Either through the SystemConfiguration framework or the Unix file system. So, we get the same data either way, right?

The difference at login window

Not quite. I found one difference. When the Mac is at the login window, the SystemConfiguration solution returns an empty string and the stat solution returns root.

This is not the entire truth, though. When you look closely at the SystemConfiguration solution, you will that there is a clause, in both the python and scutil versions, that catches a return value of loginwindow and returns and empty string instead.

When you look at the raw output of the scutil command used, we actually get quite a lot of information:

> scutil <<< "show State:/Users/ConsoleUser"
<dictionary> {
  GID : 20
  Name : armin
  SessionInfo : <array> {
    0 : <dictionary> {
      kCGSSessionAuditIDKey : 100009
      kCGSSessionGroupIDKey : 20
      kCGSSessionIDKey : 257
      kCGSSessionLoginwindowSafeLogin : FALSE
      kCGSSessionOnConsoleKey : TRUE
      kCGSSessionSystemSafeBoot : FALSE
      kCGSSessionUserIDKey : 501
      kCGSSessionUserNameKey : armin
      kCGSessionLoginDoneKey : TRUE
      kCGSessionLongUserNameKey : Armin Briegel
      kSCSecuritySessionID : 100009
    }
  }
  UID : 501
}

The awk statement after the scutil command filters out the information we need:

awk '/Name :/ && ! /loginwindow/ { print $3 }' 

This will return lines containing Name : and not containing loginwindow. In other words, if the scutil command returns loginwindow in the line, the entire scutil ... | awk ... construct will return nothing or an empty string.

When you leave out the extra awk clause to filter the loginwindow return value, you will get loginwindow while the login window is shown:

scutil <<< "show State:/Users/ConsoleUser" | awk '/Name :/  { print $3 }'

The edge of the edge case

So, the SystemConfiguration solution returns loginwindow or nothing when the Mac is sitting at a login window and the stat solution returns root. Not a big deal right? I just have to consider this difference when I test whether a user is logged in?

I found one edge case (to the edge case) where this difference matters: the stat solution will return root when at the login window and when the root account or System Administrator is logged in.

Now, enabling the root account and logging in and working as root is most definitely not recommended on macOS. So, there is an argument that this edge case should not occur.

But users have a way of ignoring these kind of recommendations. The SystemConfiguration solution will allow your scripts to actually distinguish between a Mac sitting at the login window and the (admittedly rare but extremely dangerous) situation where a user is logged in as root.

Conclusions

So, in most cases the stat solution is identical to the SystemConfiguration solution. It has the advantage of being shorter and easier to read.

When you anticipate that you might need to distinguish between the computer being at the login window and a root user being logged in, or when you are just paranoid about catching all edge cases, the SystemConfiguration solution is more complete.

If in doubt, use the SystemConfiguration solution.

2 thoughts on “Getting the current user in macOS – Update”

    1. That construct will return all users that currently have a console. It also will not detect if the Mac is sitting at the loginwindow when a user is logged in in the background.

      Now, depending on your use case, that may be sufficient (i.e. you don’t allow fast user switching and remote screen sharing), or even better (i.e. you want to know all the logged in user names). I cannot make that judgement for you.

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