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Preface to The CERT® C Coding Standard, second edition

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From the book
Robert Seacord introduces the second edition of The CERT® C Coding Standard: 98 Rules for Developing Safe, Reliable, and Secure Systems, which provides rules for coding in the C programming language safely, reliably, and securely.

The CERT® C Coding Standard, second edition, provides rules for coding in the C programming language. The goal of these rules is to develop safe, reliable, and secure systems, for example, by eliminating undefined behaviors that can lead to unexpected program behaviors and exploitable vulnerabilities. Conformance to the coding rules defined in this standard are necessary (but not sufficient) to ensure the safety, reliability, and security of software systems developed in the C programming language. It is also necessary, for example, to have a safe and secure design. Safety-critical systems typically have stricter requirements than are imposed by this coding standard, for example, requiring that all memory be statically allocated. However, the application of this coding standard will result in high-quality systems that are reliable, robust, and resistant to attack.

Each rule consists of a title, a description, and noncompliant code examples and compliant solutions. The title is a concise, but sometimes imprecise, description of the rule. The description specifies the normative requirements of the rule. The noncompliant code examples are examples of code that would constitute a violation of the rule. The accompanying compliant solutions demonstrate equivalent code that does not violate the rule, or any other rules in this coding standard.

A well-documented and enforceable coding standard is an essential element of coding in the C programming language. Coding standards encourage programmers to follow a uniform set of rules determined by the requirements of the project and organization rather than by the programmer’s familiarity. Once established, these standards can be used as a metric to evaluate source code (using manual or automated processes).

CERT’s Coding Standards are being widely adopted by industry. Cisco Systems, Inc., announced its adoption of the CERT C Secure Coding Standard as a baseline programming standard in its product development in October 2011 at Cisco’s annual SecCon conference. Recently, Oracle has integrated all of CERT’s secure coding standards into its existing Secure Coding Standards. Note that this adoption is the most recent step of a long collaboration: CERT and Oracle previously worked together in authoring The CERT® Oracle Secure Coding Standard for Java (Addison-Wesley, 2011).


The CERT® C Coding Standard, second edition, was developed specifically for versions of the C programming language defined by

  • ISO/IEC 9899:2011 ISO/IEC. Programming Languages—C, Third Edition. [ISO/IEC 9899:2011]
  • ISO/IEC 9899:2011/Cor.1:2012, Technical Corrigendum 1

The CERT® C Coding Standard, second edition, updates and replaces The CERT® C Secure Coding Standard (Addison-Wesley, 2008). The scope of the first edition of this book is C99 (the second edition of the C Standard). Although the rules in this book were developed for C11, they can also be applied to earlier versions of the C programming language, including C99. Variations between versions of the C Standard that would affect the proper application of these rules are noted where applicable.

Most rules have a noncompliant code example that is a C11-conforming program to ensure that the problem identified by the rule is within the scope of the standard. However, the best solutions to coding problems are often platform specific. In many cases, this standard provides appropriate compliant solutions for both POSIX and Windows operating systems. Language and library extensions that have been published as ISO/IEC technical reports or technical specifications are frequently given precedence, such as those described by ISO/IEC TR 24731-2 Extensions to the C Library—Part II: Dynamic Allocation Functions [ISO/IEC TR 24731-2:2010]. In many cases, compliant solutions are also provided for specific platforms such as Linux or OpenBSD. Occasionally, interesting or illustrative implementation-specific behaviors are described.


A coding standard for the C programming language can create the highest value for the longest period of time by focusing on the C Standard (C11) and the relevant post-C11 technical reports.

The C Standard documents existing practice where possible. That is, most features must be tested in an implementation before being included in the standard. The CERT® C Coding Standard, second edition has a different purpose: to establish a set of best practices, which sometimes requires introducing new practices that may not be widely known or used when existing practices are inadequate. To put it a different way, The CERT® C Coding Standard, second edition, attempts to drive change rather than just document it.

For example, the optional but normative Annex K, “Bounds-Checking Interfaces,” introduced in C11, is gaining support but at present is implemented by only a few vendors. It introduces functions such as memcpy_s(), which serve the purpose of security by adding the destination buffer size to the API. A forward-looking document could not reasonably ignore these functions simply because they are not yet widely implemented. The base C Standard is more widely implemented than Annex K, but even if it were not, it is the direction in which the industry is moving. Developers of new C code, especially, need guidance that is usable on and makes the best use of the compilers and tools that are now being developed.

Some vendors have extensions to C, and some also have implemented only part of the C Standard before stopping development. Consequently, it is not possible to back up and discuss only C99, C95, or C90. The vendor support equation is too complicated to draw a line and say that a certain compiler supports exactly a certain standard. Whatever demarcation point is selected, different vendors are on opposite sides of it for different parts of the language. Supporting all possibilities would require testing the cross-product of each compiler with each language feature. Consequently, we have selected a demarcation point that is the most recent in time so that the rules defined by the standard will be applicable for as long as possible. As a result of the variations in support, source-code portability is enhanced when the programmer uses only the features specified by C99. This is one of many trade-offs between security and portability inherent to C language programming.

The value of forward-looking information increases with time before it starts to decrease. The value of backward-looking information starts to decrease immediately.

For all of these reasons, the priority of this standard is to support new code development using C11 and the post-C11 technical reports that have not been incorporated into the C Standard. A close-second priority is supporting remediation of old code using C99 and the technical reports.

This coding standard does make contributions to support older compilers when these contributions can be significant and doing so does not compromise other priorities. The intent is not to capture all deviations from the C Standard but to capture only a few important ones.

Issues Not Addressed

A number of issues are not addressed by this coding standard.

Coding Style

Coding style issues are subjective, and it has proven impossible to develop a consensus on appropriate style guidelines. Consequently, The CERT® C Coding Standard, second edition, does not require the enforcement of any particular coding style but only suggests that the appropriate development organization define or adopt style guidelines and apply these guidelines consistently. The easiest way to apply a coding style consistently is to use a code-formatting tool. Many interactive development environments (IDEs) provide such capabilities.

Controversial Rules

In general, the CERT coding standards try to avoid the inclusion of controversial rules that lack a broad consensus.

Who Should Read This Book

The CERT® C Coding Standard, second edition, is primarily intended for developers of C language programs but may also be used by software acquirers to define the requirements for bespoke software. This book is of particular interest to developers who are interested in building high-quality systems that are reliable, robust, and resistant to attack.

While not intended for C++ programmers, this book may also be of some value because the vast majority of issues identified for C language programs are also issues in C++ programs, although in many cases the solutions are different.


The idea of a CERT secure coding standard arose at the Spring 2006 meeting of the C Standards Committee (more formally, ISO/IEC JTC1/SC22/WG14) in Berlin, Germany [Seacord 2013a]. The C Standard is an authoritative document, but its audience is primarily compiler implementers, and, as noted by many, its language is obscure and often impenetrable. A secure coding standard would be targeted primarily toward C language programmers and would provide actionable guidance on how to code securely in the language.

The CERT C Secure Coding Standard was developed on the CERT Secure Coding wiki following a community-based development process. Experts from the community, including members of the WG14 C Standards Committee, were invited to contribute and were provided with edit privileges on the wiki. Members of the community can register for a free account on the wiki and comment on the coding standards and the individual rules. Reviewers who provided high-quality comments were frequently extended edit privileges so that they could directly contribute to the development and evolution of the coding standard. Today, the CERT Secure Coding wiki has 1,374 registered contributors.

This wiki-based community development process has many advantages. Most important, it engages a broad group of experts to form a consensus opinion on the content of the rules. The main disadvantage of developing a secure coding standard on a wiki is that the content is constantly evolving. This instability may be acceptable if you want the latest information and are willing to entertain the possibility that a recent change has not yet been fully vetted. However, many software development organizations require a static set of rules and recommendations that they can adopt as requirements for their software development process. Toward this end, a stable snapshot of the CERT C Secure Coding Standard was produced after two and a half years of community development and published as The CERT® C Secure Coding Standard. With the production of the manuscript for the book in June 2008, version 1.0 (the book) and the wiki versions of the secure coding standard began to diverge.

The CERT C Secure Coding guidelines were first reviewed by WG14 at the London meeting in April 2007 and again at the Kona, Hawaii, meeting in August 2007.

The topic of whether PL22.11 should submit the CERT C Secure Coding Standard to WG14 as a candidate for publication as a type 2 or type 3 technical report was discussed at the J11/U.S. TAG Meeting, April 15, 2008, as reported in the minutes. J11 is now Task Group PL22.11, Programming Language C, and this technical committee is the U.S. Technical Advisory Group to ISO/IEC JTC 1 SC22/WG14. A straw poll was taken on the question, “Who has time to work on this project?” for which the vote was 4 (has time) to 12 (has no time). Some of the feedback we received afterwards was that although the CERT C Secure Coding Standard was a strong set of guidelines that had been developed with input from many of the technical experts at WG14 and had been reviewed by WG14 on several occasions, WG14 was not normally in the business of “blessing” guidance to developers. However, WG14 was certainly in the business of defining normative requirements for tools such as compilers.

Armed with this knowledge, we proposed that WG14 establish a study group to consider the problem of producing analyzable secure coding guidelines for the C language. The study group first met on October 27, 2009. CERT contributed an automatically enforceable subset of the C secure coding rules to ISO/IEC for use in the standardization process.

Participants in the study group included analyzer vendors such as Coverity, Fortify, GammaTech, Gimpel, Klocwork, and LDRA; security experts; language experts; and consumers. A new work item to develop and publish ISO/IEC TS 17961, C Secure Coding Rules, was approved for WG14 in March 2012, and the study group concluded. Roberto Bagnara, the Italian National Body representative to WG 14, later joined the WG14 editorial committee. ISO/IEC TS 17961:2013(E), Information Technology—Programming Languages, Their Environments and System Software Interfaces—C Secure Coding Rules [ISO/IEC TS 17961:2013] was officially published in November 2013 and is available for purchase at the ISO store.

ISO/IEC TS 17961 C Secure Coding Rules

The purpose of ISO/IEC TS 17961 is to establish a baseline set of requirements for analyzers, including static analysis tools and C language compilers, to be applied by vendors that wish to diagnose insecure code beyond the requirements of the language standard. All rules are meant to be enforceable by static analysis. The criterion for selecting these rules is that analyzers that implement these rules must be able to effectively discover secure coding errors without generating excessive false positives.

To date, the application of static analysis to security has been performed in an ad hoc manner by different vendors, resulting in nonuniform coverage of significant security issues. ISO/IEC TS 17961 enumerates secure coding rules and requires analysis engines to diagnose violations of these rules as a matter of conformance to the specification. These rules may be extended in an implementation-dependent manner, which provides a minimum coverage guarantee to customers of any and all conforming static analysis implementations.

ISO/IEC TS 17961 specifies rules for secure coding in the C programming language and includes code examples for each rule. Noncompliant code examples demonstrate language constructs that have weaknesses with potentially exploitable security implications; such examples are expected to elicit a diagnostic from a conforming analyzer for the affected language construct. Compliant examples are expected not to elicit a diagnostic. ISO/IEC TS 17961 does not specify the mechanism by which these rules are enforced or any particular coding style to be enforced.

Table P–1 shows how ISO/IEC TS 17961 relates to other standards and guidelines. Of the publications listed, ISO/IEC TS 17961 is the only one for which the immediate audience is analyzers and not developers.

Table P–1. ISO/IEC TS 17961 compared with other standards

Coding Standard

C Standard

Security Standard

Safety Standard

International Standard

Whole Language
































TS 17961






A conforming analyzer must be capable of producing a diagnostic for each distinct rule in the technical specification upon detecting a violation of that rule in isolation. If the same program text violates multiple rules simultaneously, a conforming analyzer may aggregate diagnostics but must produce at least one diagnostic. The diagnostic message might be of the form

Accessing freed memory in function abc, file xyz.c, line nnn.

ISO/IEC TS 17961 does not require an analyzer to produce a diagnostic message for any violation of any syntax rule or constraint specified by the C Standard. Conformance is defined only with respect to source code that is visible to the analyzer. Binary-only libraries, and calls to them, are outside the scope of these rules.

An interesting aspect of the technical specification is the portability assumptions, known within the group as the “San Francisco rule” because the assumptions evolved at a meeting hosted by Coverity at its headquarters. The San Francisco rule states that a conforming analyzer must be able to diagnose violations of guidelines for at least one C implementation but does not need to diagnose a rule violation if the result is documented for the target implementation and does not cause a security flaw. Variations in quality of implementation permit an analyzer to produce diagnostics concerning portability issues. For example, the following program fragment can produce a diagnostic, such as the mismatch between %d and long int:

long i; printf("i = %d", i);

This mismatch might not be a problem for all target implementations, but it is a portability problem because not all implementations have the same representation for int and long.

In addition to other goals already stated, The CERT® C Coding Standard, second edition, has been updated for consistency with ISO/IEC TS 17961. Although both documents serve different audiences, consistency between the documents should improve the ability of developers to use ISO/IEC TS 17961–conforming analyzers to find violations of rules from this coding standard.

CERT has also developed the Secure Coding Validation Suite, a set of tests to validate the rules defined in ISO/IEC TS 17961. These tests are based on the examples in this technical specification and are distributed with a BSD-style license.

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