2.9 Treating / specially

Certain commands can operate destructively on entire hierarchies. For example, if a user with appropriate privileges mistakenly runs ‘rm -rf / tmp/junk’, that may remove all files on the entire system. Since there are so few legitimate uses for such a command, GNU rm normally declines to operate on any directory that resolves to /. If you really want to try to remove all the files on your system, you can use the --no-preserve-root option, but the default behavior, specified by the --preserve-root option, is safer for most purposes.

The commands chgrp, chmod and chown can also operate destructively on entire hierarchies, so they too support these options. Although, unlike rm, they don’t actually unlink files, these commands are arguably more dangerous when operating recursively on /, since they often work much more quickly, and hence damage more files before an alert user can interrupt them. Tradition and POSIX require these commands to operate recursively on /, so they default to --no-preserve-root, but using the --preserve-root option makes them safer for most purposes. For convenience you can specify --preserve-root in an alias or in a shell function.

The --preserve-root option also ensures that chgrp and chown do not modify / even when dereferencing a symlink pointing to /.