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Take ownership of your files after access denied due to NTFS permissions

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If you check the properties of the main storage device of your Windows computer, chances are you will see that it uses the NTFS file system. This is a very powerful and flexible system that Microsoft designed to keep your files organized between folders, keep track of which user can open which files, prevent malicious programs from messing up the system files and so on.

When you are coping your files to an external hard drive formatted with the NTFS file system, you may not realize it but you are not only copying the contents of the files, you are also copying their attributes, including the security attributes. Depending on how this drive was formatted, the security attributes could be such that only you, the owner of these files, are allowed to open them, but other users should be restricted from doing that. Usually it all works well, until it does not. For example, if you've purchased a new laptop and attached the external drive to it hoping to get your files as you did many times in the past, but suddenly you are presented with a message saying "access denied":

Access denied due to NTFS permissions

Before we continue, keep in mind that there could be several other reasons for the "access denied" message. For example, if you are accessing a network folder, shared from another computer, the access could be denied because the folder was shared in such a way as not to allow access to your user account. Or, the folder could be restricted by using an access control program such as our Folder Guard. If none of such conditions apply, then most probably the culprit is the NTFS permissions.

Also, a word of caution: changing the owner and security properties of files and folders is a powerful technique that, if used improperly, could lock you out of your files. Don't change the security settings of the system files and folders because you may lock yourself out of Windows itself and prevent your computer from starting properly. If you don't quite understand what's going on with the security of your files, ask someone more knowlegable for help, don't change something you don't understand because that can make things worse! Follow the instructions below at your own risk.

If you see the access denied message, the first thing to check is the security settings of the folder you are trying to open. In our example, it's the root folder of the drive F:. In File Explorer, open the This PC folder, right-click on the F: drive, choose Properties from the menu, and finally select the Security tab. Chances are you will see a screen similar to the following:

Security settings restricted due to NTFS permissions

Let's follow the suggestion displayed and press the Advanced button:

Advanced security settings of an NTFS folder

As you can see, Windows has restricted itself even from displaying the current owner of the folder! Fortunately, this is easy to fix. If you are the administrator of the computer, you can take ownership of the folder. Click on the Change text on the second line:

Changing the owner of an NTFS folder

You can type your user name directly in the box or, if you are not sure, press Advanced and then the Find now button to display the list of users and groups, and select your user name in the list (which is User in our example, but in your case it will be probably something resembling your real name, like Joe Doe:)

Selecting the owner of an NTFS folder in the list or users and groups

Press OK once or twice to return to the Advanced Security Settings screen and you should now see the user name you've just selected on the Owner line:

Changing the owner of an NTFS folder

At this point you have selected your user account as the owner, but the change is not effective yet. To make it take effect, check the box that reads Replace owner on subcontainers and objects so that the new owner would be set not only on the root folder, but also on all files and folders under that root, and press Apply. You may see a prompt similar to the following asking you to confirm:

Replace directory permissions of an NTFS folder

Press Yes and after a while you may see the following message:

Windows prompts to reopen properties of an NTFS folder

What it means is Windows is asking you to close the current screen displaying the properties of the folder and open it again, to make it display the changes. Let's do that, by closing the Advanced Security Settings and Properties screens, and then going back to the This PC folder, right-clicking on the drive F: icon, choosing Properties form the menu and selecting Security. You should see a more informative screen now:

Security properties an NTFS folder after taking ownership

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You should be able to see your user name as the owner and also the list of permissions that your user account has over the root folder, with the check marks in the Allow column and none in the Deny column. To adjust these permissions, press the Edit button.

If the screen looks similar to the example above, you are on the right track. But you are not finished yet: you've only changed the permissions of the root folder, you still probably need to change the permissions of the files and subfolders to allow your user account to actually open the files. To do that, press the Advanced button and select the box at the bottom that reads Replace all child permission entries with inheritable permission entries from this object:

Change permissions of the files and subfolders of an NTFS folder

Windows may ask you to confirm this action, press Yes to allow it to proceed. If the drive has a lot of files and folders, it may take quite awhile to finish. When all is done, close the Properties window and try to browse the drive and open the files it contains. You should be able to have a full access now, without any "access denied" messages.

If you see a message about a corrupted Recycle Bin, like the following one:

recycle Bin is corrupted after changing the owner of an NTFS root folder

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It's the result of changing the owner: Windows prevents you from peeking into the Recycle Bin created by the previous owner and retrieving the documents from it that used to belong to the previous owner. (It does not know it was you!) Reply Yes to empty the Recycle bin and it should become ready for use by you.

Happy computing!

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