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A buffer overflow condition exists when a program attempts to put more data in a buffer than it can hold, or when a program attempts to put data in a memory area outside of the boundaries of a buffer. The simplest type of error, and the most common cause of buffer overflows, is the "classic" case in which the program copies the buffer without checking its length at all. Other variants exist, but the existence of a classic overflow strongly suggests that the programmer is not considering even the most basic of security protections.

Applicable LanguagesEdit

  • C
  • C++
  • Assembly


Buffer overflow errors are characterized by the overwriting of memory fragments of the process, which should have never been modified intentionally or unintentionally. Overwriting values of the Instruction Pointer, Base Pointer, and other registers causes exceptions, segmentation faults, and other errors to occur. Usually these errors end execution of the application in an unexpected way. Buffer overflow errors occur when we operate on buffers of char type.


Execute Unauthorized Code or CommandsEdit

Buffer overflows can be used to execute malicious code entered into a buffer. In cases where the program is running with heightened privileges, this can result in the attacker gaining access to system resources and directories the user was not meant to have access to.

Program AvailabilityEdit

Buffer overflows generally lead to crashes. Other attacks leading to lack of availability are possible, including putting the program into an infinite loop and consuming vast amounts of system resources (such as the CPU).

Mitigations and DefensesEdit

Language SelectionEdit

Use a language that does not allow this weakness to occur or provides constructs that make this weakness easier to avoid.

For example, many languages that perform their own memory management, such as Java and Perl, are not subject to buffer overflows. Other languages, such as Ada and C#, typically provide overflow protection, but the protection can be disabled by the programmer.

Input ValidationEdit

Assume all input is malicious. Use an "accept known good" input validation strategy, i.e., use an allow list of acceptable inputs that strictly conform to specifications. Reject any input that does not strictly conform to specifications, or transform it into something that does. Do not rely exclusively on looking for malicious or malformed inputs (i.e., do not rely on a deny list). However, deny lists can be useful for detecting potential attacks or determining which inputs are so malformed that they should be rejected outright.

When performing input validation, consider all potentially relevant properties, including length, type of input, the full range of acceptable values, missing or extra inputs, syntax, consistency across related fields, and conformance to business rules. As an example of business rule logic, "boat" may be syntactically valid because it only contains alphanumeric characters, but it is not valid if you are expecting colors such as "red" or "blue."

Environment HardeningEdit

  • Use a feature like Address Space Layout Randomization (ASLR).
  • Run your code using the lowest privileges that are required to accomplish the necessary tasks. If possible, create isolated accounts with limited privileges that are only used for a single task. That way, a successful attack will not immediately give the attacker access to the rest of the software or its environment. For example, database applications rarely need to run as the database administrator, especially in day-to-day operations.

Use Safe, Equivalent FunctionsEdit

Replace unbounded copy functions with analogous functions that support length arguments. Below is a list of functions considered unsafe (on the left) and their equivalent procedures (on the right):

  • gets() --> fgets()
  • strcpy() --> strncpy()
  • strcat() --> strncat()
  • sprintf() --> snprintf()