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I want to delete some files/directories from my Time Machine Partition using rm, but am unable to do so. I'm pretty sure the problem is related to some sort of access control extended attributes on files in the backup, but do not know how to override/disable them in order to get rm to work. An example of the error I'm getting is:

% sudo rm -rf Backups.backupdb/MacBook/Latest/MacBook/somedir
rm: Backups.backupdb/MacBook/Latest/MacBook/somedir: Directory not empty
rm: Backups.backupdb/MacBook/Latest/MacBook/somedir/somefile: Operation not permitted

There are a number of reasons I do not want to use either the Time Machine GUI or Finder for this. If possible, I'd like to be able to maintain the extended protection for all other files (I'd like not to disable them globally, unless I can re-enable once I've done my work).

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I've gotten closer. First, I needed to disable ACLs on my Time Machine disk. Previously, one would use fsaclctl to do this, but Snow Leopard does not include this. I grabbed a copy of the binary from an older version of OSX and ran this: % sudo fsaclctl -p /Volumes/tmvol -d I then tried to use "sudo rm -rf" to remove a directory, but still ran into issues with some files (though others went away fine). Specifically, it failed on soft links. Very strange. On the plus side, the links take up almost no space. On the negative side, I still have the directories sticking around. – Tim Jul 14 '10 at 16:26
It seems that the accepted answer is quite dangerous when deleting snapshots, or folders in snapshots, like your rm -r Backups.backupdb/MacBook/Latest/MacBook/somedir; if you agree, then please accept Arne's answer? – Arjan Aug 26 at 16:44

8 Answers 8

up vote 67 down vote accepted

To work around "operation not permitted" errors, use the Time Machine Safety Net "bypass" program:

sudo /System/Library/Extensions/TMSafetyNet.kext/Contents/MacOS/bypass rm -rfv /Volumes/[disk]/Backups.backupdb/[path]

In 10.8 Mountain Lion, bypass moved into 'Helpers':


In 10.10 Yosemite, bypass moved here:


Beware when using this to delete specific snapshots: as Time Machine uses hard links, using rm -r on folders might also affect older and newer snapshots of the same machine. (See other answers referring to tmutil delete to safely delete a specific snapshot.) Using rm to delete all snapshots for a single machine is okay though. And so is using rm to delete a specific file, which will only remove that hard-linked file from the snapshot(s) you specify, assuming the file is not in a hard-linked directory as then you'd actually remove the file from all those hard-linked directories.

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+1!! This helped me. I didn't even try the others because this looked like "the right way" and indeed, it allowed me to resolve the issue with no further questions. Thanks! – tripleee Feb 28 '12 at 13:59
I created an account just to +1 you. I have been looking for a better solution to this, and this was it. It had been driving me crazy. Thank you. – CWSpear May 13 '12 at 21:46
Awesome. This works. (although I leave out the 'v' option to avoid seeing an entry for each of a few hundred thousand files) i.e.: sudo ...bypass rm -rf /Volumes/... – Rubistro Nov 13 '12 at 1:54
Fantastic! Saved me hours of hair pulling. Thanks! – jsd Feb 27 '13 at 23:30
This is an extremely dangerous method for managing Time Machine files; Time Machine uses hard-linked directories to reference folders that haven't changed since the previous backup, however the rm process doesn't understand these and will follow these links and remove files from them. This means you could potentially delete files that are also in older and newer backups than the one that you selected, potentially causing irreparable damage to the backup(s). Arne Stenström's recommendation of using tmutil is by far the superior solution. – Haravikk Dec 3 '13 at 18:59

BLUF (bottom line up-front):

sudo tmutil delete snapshot-dir

Using sudo chmod -R -N folder to remove all ACLs from a folder hierarchy doesn't work on the files and folders in Time Machine's Backups.backupdb, because of the TM Safety Net mechanism and the criteria described in this 318 Tech Journal post (but possibly not exactly as described).
    (Before learning this from looking up the Safety Net mentioned in Eric W's answer (which works), I had only tested on a folder cloned from a subfolder of a TM backup, and there chmod worked. But trying chmod on a folder in an actual TM backup gives the "Operation not permitted" error.)

Of possible use:
    In Mac OS 10.7+, there's a tmutil command (which I haven't tried, since I'm still on Snow Leopard). It has a delete verb, which according to the description "can delete snapshots from backups that were not made by, or are not claimed by, the current machine" (where a "snapshot" is a dated folder representing a single incremental backup). It isn't clear to me if this means that it can't delete snapshots which are made by or claimed by the current machine.(?)

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Indeed, tmutil is useful, and will allow you to delete backups (tmutil delete /Volumes/DISK/Backups.backupdb/HOST/DATE_FOLDER). However, you still need Eric's bypass trick to delete the "Backups.backupdb" folder itself. – mivk Jun 30 '12 at 13:27
My OSX 10.8.3 (Mountain Lion) did not require bypass. Just sudo tmutil delete <snapshot-dir>. The popular bypass rm answer is outdated. – John Mee May 9 '13 at 22:33
Is it possible to use tmutil to delete just some files from a snapshot? It didn't work for me (Invalid deletion target (error 22)) so I went with bypass instead. – Robert Tupelo-Schneck Dec 6 '14 at 14:39

A brief warning about using the bypass command to remove an entire old backup (or backups), based on a test-case of one (OSX 10.6.8):

All (equal) copies of the files in the designated backup folder will be removed from other backup folders as well.

So, instead of removing the single hard link, all the hard links to the same file will be removed. I thought it was odd that removing one backup brought my available disk space up by so much. When I checked a few files from the -v log that I knew were system files and should not change, all the backup copies were gone. And, the modification date on the enclosing folders in all of the backup folders (going back nearly two years) were all changed to (today).

(Appended, 2015-09) Comments below led me to go back and try this again; and, it's still very confusing.

sh-3.2# ls -lFa 2014-11*/Users/USERNAME/Library/Safari/TopSites.plist 
-rw-r--r--@ 2 USERNAME  staff  1551 10 30  2014 2014-11-06-012454/Users/USERNAME/Library/Safari/TopSites.plist
-rw-r--r--@ 2 USERNAME  staff  1551 10 30  2014 2014-11-13-024438/Users/USERNAME/Library/Safari/TopSites.plist
-rw-r--r--@ 2 USERNAME  staff  1551 10 30  2014 2014-11-20-014044/Users/USERNAME/Library/Safari/TopSites.plist
-rw-r--r--@ 2 USERNAME  staff  1551 10 30  2014 2014-11-27-025033/Users/USERNAME/Library/Safari/TopSites.plist
sh-3.2# /System/Library/Extensions/TMSafetyNet.kext/Contents/MacOS/bypass unlink 2014-11-06-012454/Users/USERNAME/Library/Safari/TopSites.plist 
sh-3.2# ls -lFa 2014-11*/Users/USERNAME/Library/Safari/TopSites.plist 
-rw-r--r--@ 1 USERNAME  staff  1551 10 30  2014 2014-11-13-024438/Users/USERNAME/Library/Safari/TopSites.plist
-rw-r--r--@ 1 USERNAME  staff  1551 10 30  2014 2014-11-20-014044/Users/USERNAME/Library/Safari/TopSites.plist
-rw-r--r--@ 1 USERNAME  staff  1551 10 30  2014 2014-11-27-025033/Users/USERNAME/Library/Safari/TopSites.plist
sh-3.2# /System/Library/Extensions/TMSafetyNet.kext/Contents/MacOS/bypass unlink 2014-11-13-024438/Users/USERNAME/Library/Safari/TopSites.plist 
sh-3.2# ls -lFa 2014-11*/Users/USERNAME/Library/Safari/TopSites.plist 
ls: 2014-11*/Users/USERNAME/Library/Safari/TopSites.plist: No such file or directory

Despite there being multiple hard links to the same file, the number of links was just "2" before we did anything drastic, like unlink/rm a file. After unlinking one of the files, the count dropped to one (the decrement was expected; but, there are three different files so, why the count only goes to 1 is a mystery). Doing the same unlink of just one file, all of the "same" files disappeared.

(edited again) Based on the comment by @Arjan , I checked those directories, and sure enough the directories themselves were hard-linked, so instead of having "3 links to the file" it is actually "1 link to the file, which occurs in a directory which has 3 links". When removing the file from one directory, it would be removed from all directories.

sh-3.2# ls -lFaid 2014-11*/Users/USERNAME/Library/Safari/
648651968 drwxr-xr-x@ 86 USERNAME  staff  2924  9 10 16:06 2014-11-06-012454/Users/USERNAME/Library/Safari//
650804457 drwxr-xr-x@ 86 USERNAME  staff  2924  9 10 16:07 2014-11-13-024438/Users/USERNAME/Library/Safari//
650804457 drwxr-xr-x@ 86 USERNAME  staff  2924  9 10 16:07 2014-11-20-014044/Users/USERNAME/Library/Safari//
650804457 drwxr-xr-x@ 86 USERNAME  staff  2924  9 10 16:07 2014-11-27-025033/Users/USERNAME/Library/Safari//
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Some background: for files, hard links work as expected; only the hard link you want to delete is removed. Like: touch file1; ln file1 file2; ln file2 file3; ls -li; rm file2; ls -li will only remove a single hard link. But for folders, in What is the Unix command to create a hardlink to a directory in OS X? someone wrote for 10.5 in 2010: "Deleting is a different story: if you go about it the usual way to delete directories, you'll delete the contents. So you must "unlink" the directory: unlink new_hard_link". This is probably still valid. – Arjan Aug 26 at 16:39
The man page for unlink (in 10.6.8) says that it cannot be used on directories: When the utility is called as unlink, only one argument, which must not be a directory, may be supplied. – Kent Aug 26 at 22:31
Hmmm, mystery. Even more so, your answer is important: don't use [bypass] rm -r on hard-linked directories. (But I don't have to explain that to you.) – Arjan Aug 27 at 7:08
I just experimented a little more. Running bypass unlink FILE has the same (unintended?) consequence as bypass rm FILE. The identical FILE is removed from all backups, not just the single location that was specified. And, unlink will NOT take a directory or more than one file as an argument (10.6.8 server; but, I don't think this will have changed through the newer OS versions) – Kent Sep 10 at 0:00
Wow, I'm quite surprised by your bypass rm FILE and bypass unlink FILE removing all identical files, which does not match what one sees for touch file1; ln file1 file2; ln file2 file3; ls -li; unlink file2; ls -li, nor for touch file1; ln file1 file2; ln file2 file3; ls -li; /System/Library/Extensions/TMSafetyNet.kext/Contents/Helpers/bypass unlink file2; ls -li. I'm never going to remove something from a backup... – Arjan Sep 10 at 6:47

Note: Due to the "TM Safety Net" mentioned by Eric W, this answer doesn't work for the case of a Time Machine backup, which the question specifically pertains to. But for most every other case, the information about how to get rid of ACLs is relevant.

There's no need to use ACL tools copied from an older OS.

Use ls -le to view ACLs and chmod to alter them.

For more info, type man chmod and look under ”ACL Manipulation Options” .

The command to remove all ACLs from a folder hierarchy is:

chmod -R -N foldername
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If you're not executing the command as the user that "owns" the backup, you're going to have a hard time deleting from the command line. I just had this issue with a migration, and we had to ditto the entire Time Machine backup (1tb+) and format the drive before we could get any sort of access to it - and trust me, I tried everything to override the permissions.

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sudo should give me access to all files as I'm running as administrator. I'm pretty sure this is an ACL issue and I'm working on that. – Tim Jul 13 '10 at 15:09
Nic, a few years late, but in case you missed it: see Eric's answer. – Arjan Aug 26 at 15:13
@Tim: this assertion would even be untrue on other unixoid systems, given the immutable attribute (chattr). What root will give you theoretically is to circumvent any security net. – 0xC0000022L Nov 19 at 17:37

If you want to delete all files in a folder and not just specific files, you can accomplish this by adding the folder to Time Machine's exclusion list. (System preferences -> Time Machine -> Options. Drag the folder here.)

Next time you perform a backup, copies of that folder will be removed from previous backups.

Now, if you really want to do this from a CLI, there's a way, albeit a little cumbersome.

  1. Make a backup of /Library/Preferences/
  2. Copy /Library/Preferences/ somewhere where you can toy with it.
  3. Cd into whereever you put it.
  4. Execute
    plutil -convert xml1
    to convert it from binary form.
  5. Open the converted plist in preferable text editor, search for "skippaths"
  6. Insert a new line in that section, formatted as <string>/Path/To/Exclude</string>
  7. Save and exit, convert back by executing
    plutil -convert binary1
  8. Copy your edited plist back into /Library/Preferences/
  9. Start a backup by executing
    /System/Library/CoreServices/backupd.bundle/Contents/Resources/backupd-helper -auto

Edit: When you perform step 9, all copies of the newly excluded folder will be erased from previous backups.

To remove the exception, copy your backup back into /Library/Preferences.

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I'm not trying to exclude a directory. I'm trying to delete a directory from an existing backup and to do some from the commandline. Really, I'd just like to figure out how to allow rm to work within a Backups.backupdb directory. – Tim Jul 12 '10 at 20:30
OK, perhaps it wasn't clear from my instructions that the folder is actually deleted from the backups when performing the above steps. See my edit. But if it's not the solution you are looking for, then I suppose you could always su - root and then rm -rf the folders, but I think fiddling with something as precious as backups in that way is something one should generally try to avoid. – Frost Jul 13 '10 at 6:27
But adding it as an exclusion would delete all copies of it from all the backups. Also, though this is a TimeMachine backup, it is not from the machine that I'm doing this work on, so it is no longer an active TimeMachine. sudo has the same effect as "su - root" and then "rm -rf". I'm pretty sure this is failing because Apple has added a level of security to the filesystem beyond simple *nix permissions. – Tim Jul 13 '10 at 15:11
This might sound stupid, but I'm not entirely sure that sudo has the same effect as su - root on a mac. I seem to recall an occasion when I was trying to delete something where sudo didn't suffice, but sudo - root did the trick. – Frost Jul 14 '10 at 12:58
@Frost- I don't think Time Machine works the way you suggest. I just tried excluding a folder, then running TM, and the older backups of that folder are still present in TM. Or perhaps its behavior has changed since you posted this nearly a year ago. – Caffeine Coma Jun 1 '11 at 16:20

You can make ls list extended attributes in a long view using the -@ flag. It will list ACLs when you supply the -e flag. So, you can find out what you're dealing with by using ls -lea@ DIR.

Judging by my local Time Machine backups, it looks like Time Machine applies extended attributes with metadata about the newest and oldest snapshots. The data stored by the xattrs looks to be a binary plist. These seem innocuous.

Time Machine also looks to apply ACLs to certain directories it knows about, such as the ones placed in a standard user directory. There are two kinds of ACLs potentially standing in your way: those applied directly to the file or directory that deny delete, and those applied to a parent of the file that deny delete_child.

Unfortunately, Mac OS X does not supply the user utilities getfacl and setfacl specified by POSIX.2c to view and manipulate ACLs. To mess with ACLs, you'll have to do some programming; see the acl(3) manpage.

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Time machine works like rshapshot. It creates a tree of hard links for each new backup. Hard links to files already existing in a previous backup use very little additional space. Only when the last hard link to a file is removed is the file actually deleted from the filesystem.

Removing an entire individual backup won't hurt. You're just removing hard links. No other backup will be affected. But that can be accomplished via tmutil.

One scenario in which it may be necessary to bypass protection is to remove a specific file from all backups (and the reason why I ended up on this post).

My backup disk is full. I have a very large file (many gigabytes) that has been backed up for months. There is one physical copy of it, but many snapshots with hard links to that copy. To actually get rid of that file, I need to remove the hard link from every backup.

Note that the inode number is the same for all hard links to the same file.

% cd /Volumes/WD\ 500G\ USB/Backups.backupdb/csm-laptop
% ls -li */Macintosh\ HD/Users/csm/vm.img
2740350 -rw-r--r--@ 28 csm  staff  42949672960 Feb 17 16:12 2015-05-08-005636/Macintosh HD/Users/csm/vm.img
2740350 -rw-r--r--@ 28 csm  staff  42949672960 Feb 17 16:12 2015-05-08-015812/Macintosh HD/Users/csm/vm.img
2740350 -rw-r--r--@ 28 csm  staff  42949672960 Feb 17 16:12 2015-05-08-030036/Macintosh HD/Users/csm/vm.img
2740350 -rw-r--r--@ 28 csm  staff  42949672960 Feb 17 16:12 2015-05-08-041307/Macintosh HD/Users/csm/vm.img
2740350 -rw-r--r--@ 28 csm  staff  42949672960 Feb 17 16:12 Latest/Macintosh HD/Users/csm/vm.img

(Latest is just a symlink to the last dated directory)

% sudo bypass rm -f */Macintosh\ HD\Users\csm\vm.img

The file is removed from all backups, and space is returned. If the file has been changing over time, each backup will have a full copy and the space returned will be enormous.

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As for "Removing an entire individual backup won't hurt. You're just removing hard links. No other backup will be affected.": if this refers to snapshots within backups for a single machine, then given Kent's (old) answer using rm -r might be (or: have been) dangerous. Better be safe than sorry and use tmutil for that. – Arjan Aug 26 at 16:41

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