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Validating C and C++ for Safety and Security

February, 2006: Validating C and C++ For Safety and Security

Robert C. Seacord is a senior vulnerability analyst at the CERT/C and author of Secure Coding in C and C++ (Addison-Wesley, 2005). He can be reached at

Buffer overflows are a primary source of software vulnerabilities. A buffer overflow occurs when data is written outside of the boundaries of the memory allocated to a particular data structure. Buffer overflows are troublesome in that they can go undetected during the development and testing of software applications. Common C and C++ compilers neither identify possible buffer overflow conditions at compilation time nor report buffer overflow exceptions at runtime [1].

Not all buffer overflows lead to exploitable software vulnerabilities. However, a buffer overflow can cause a program to be vulnerable to attack when the program's input data is manipulated by a (potentially malicious) user. Even buffer overflows that are not obvious vulnerabilities can introduce risk.

Code inspections have been used for many years to reduce errors in program development [2]. Code inspections used primarily to identify and eliminate security flaws leading to exploitable buffer overflows and other vulnerabilities are referred to as "source-code security audits." These audits can be effective in finding and eliminating problems that cannot be detected using existing tools. However, source-code audits are typically unstructured and rely largely on the experience and tenacity of the programmers performing the review.

While any manual process is prone to error, following a more structured approach may produce a higher level of assurance that potential security flaws have been identified and properly remediated. In the remainder of this article, I describe a manual review process for C and C++ language programs that is based on Safe-Secure C/C++ from Plum Hall [3].

Safe-Secure C/C++ (SSCC) is a set of methods to eliminate vulnerabilities resulting from buffer overflows and other programming errors in C and C++ using a mixture of compile-time, link-time, and runtime tests, plus some design-time restrictions. The basic premise underlying SSCC is that most exploits (especially those that transfer control to arbitrary code) need to read or write to memory locations outside the bounds of the data structures defined by the program. This allows an attacker, for example, to overwrite the return address on the stack or other address to which control is eventually transferred to execute arbitrary code provided by the attacker or already resident on the system. By eliminating the possibility of such writes, it is possible to eliminate these vulnerabilities.

To demonstrate how the manual review process works, I apply it to the hbAssignCodes() function shown in Example 1 from the Standard Performance Evaluation Corporation (SPEC) C language benchmark program 256.bzip2.

To simplify the process and reduce the cognitive load for the reviewer, the manual review is carried out in a series of steps. Because SSCC is based on preventing reads and writes from outside the bounds of programmatically defined data structures, the first step is to identify fetch and stores that involve subscripting or dereferencing a pointer. The hbAssignCodes() function is shown in the right-hand side of Table 1.

There are two fetch and stores of interest in this function, both on line 1441. The variable length is a function parameter and is defined as a pointer to unsigned char. The variable code is also a function parameter but is defined as a pointer to int. When these variables are subscripted, the value of these pointers is added to i times the sizeof of the respective types. On 32-bit Intel Architecture (IA-32), for example, the sizeof of an unsigned char is a single byte, while an int is 4 bytes.

In both cases, there is no clear indication what these arguments point to, so these fetch and store operations could potentially be out of bounds. Consequently, both subscript operations are annotated in the left-hand side of the table. The SUB4() notation is shorthand for "is a suitable subscript for" and is both a requirement and a guarantee. This means that the developer, compiler, or runtime system must guarantee that this requirement is satisfied before line 1441 is executed, to eliminate the possibility of buffer overflow.

In step 2 we look for and mark counted loops. Counted loops are the most basic type of loop and involve a loop counter that monotonically increases or decreases until a maximum or minimum value is reached. If the loop counter is increasing, the loop is referred to as a "counted-plus loop." When the loop counter is decreasing, the loop is referred to as a "counted-minus loop." Table 2 identifies two occurrences of counted-plus loops in the hbAssignCodes() function.

Counted loops are interesting because they can help establish easy-to-identify limits. The variable i (used twice as an index on line 1441) is the loop counter for the counted-plus loop on line 1440. We see from the for statement that the value of i starts at 0 and increases monotonically until it is one less than the value of alphaSize. This means that the values up to alphaSize-1 must be suitable as a subscript for both the length and code arrays. These limits are identified in the third step of the review process. Table 3 shows the annotated hbAssignCodes() function at the completion of step 3.

Table 3 adds annotations for line 1441 showing that alphaSize is "SUB5" for both the length and code arrays. "SUB5" means that the value is one greater than a value that is suitable as an array index (that is, "SUB4 plus one").

In step 4 we annotate the function's declaration to indicate whether there are any requirements on arguments to the function. Because the alphaSize argument must be SUB5 for both length and code, we need to annotate this requirement as shown in Example 2.

In step 5 we analyze each call to the function to determine whether the requirements imposed by the new annotations can be guaranteed. In the current example, there is only one call to this function on line 1907 of the program (as shown in Table 4 along with some other relevant lines from the sample program). The arguments to this function include the code and len arrays, respectively declared on lines 1012 and 1021, and alphaSize.

During step 3, it was also determined that alphaSize must be SUB5 for len[] (see the annotation for line 1902). Flow analysis shows that after line 1736, alphaSize equals 258, which provides the guarantee prior to invoking the hbAssignCodes() function on line 1868 that alphaSize is SUB5 for len. Because the len array has the same bounds as the code array, this also guarantees that alphaSize is SUB5 for code. This means that the call to hbAssignCodes() on line 1868 is safe and no additional runtime guarantees are required. This is an ideal outcome because no additional code needs to be introduced that would introduce additional runtime overhead. A cut-down version of a function (qSort3()) that cannot be guaranteed to be safe is shown in Table 5.

This function shows a number of subscripting operations on lines 2446 through 2496 (after macro expansion). The control flow of the function permits a compile-time analysis of the min-max range of the subscript sp. This analysis shows that the subscripting is valid at lines 2446 through 2495, but a potential buffer overflow exists at line 2496.

As a result, it is necessary to modify the code so that a check is inserted prior to line 2496 to ensure that sp is a valid subscript for stack. Alternatively, the bound for stack can be increased to 1001 at line 2437.

Programmers may sometimes dismiss concerns about buffer overflows in "corner cases that wouldn't happen in real situations." However, software security requires that developers anticipate the actions of malicious users who will search for corner cases like these that can be successfully exploited.


Source-code audits have been used successfully to identify and remove software flaws from C and C++ programs that otherwise may have resulted in exploitable software vulnerabilities. However, these audits are often imperfect, unstructured, and dependent on the tenacity and knowledge of the auditor.

A formal, structured approach such as the one described in this article can be used to prove the safety of analyzed code. Of course, this manual method is both labor-intensive and prone to human error and could be greatly supplemented by the use of automated tools.


  1. [1] Seacord, Robert C. Secure Programming in C and C++. Addison-Wesley, 2005, ISBN 0321335724.
  2. [2] Fagan, M.E. "Design and Code Inspections to Reduce Errors in Program Development." IBM System Journal, v. 15 n. 3, 1976, pp. 182-211.
  3. [3] Plum, Thomas and David M. Keaton. "Eliminating Buffer Overflows, Using the Compiler or a Standalone Tool." Published in proceedings of the Workshop on Software Security Assurance Tools, Techniques, and Metrics, Long Beach, California, November 7-8, 2005; Past_Workshops.

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