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Program Security

This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book


Being human, programmers and other developers make many mistakes, most of which are unintentional and nonmalicious. Many such errors cause program malfunctions but do not lead to more serious security vulnerabilities. However, a few classes of errors have plagued programmers and security professionals for decades, and there is no reason to believe they will disappear. In this section we consider three classic error types that have enabled many recent security breaches. We explain each type, why it is relevant to security, and how it can be prevented or mitigated.

Buffer Overflows

A buffer overflow is the computing equivalent of trying to pour two liters of water into a one-liter pitcher: Some water is going to spill out and make a mess. And in computing, what a mess these errors have made!


A buffer (or array or string) is a space in which data can be held. A buffer resides in memory. Because memory is finite, a buffer's capacity is finite. For this reason, in many programming languages the programmer must declare the buffer's maximum size so that the compiler can set aside that amount of space.

Let us look at an example to see how buffer overflows can happen. Suppose a C language program contains the declaration:

char sample[10]; 

The compiler sets aside 10 bytes to store this buffer, one byte for each of the ten elements of the array, sample[0] through sample[9]. Now we execute the statement:

sample[10] = 'A'; 

The subscript is out of bounds (that is, it does not fall between 0 and 9), so we have a problem. The nicest outcome (from a security perspective) is for the compiler to detect the problem and mark the error during compilation. However, if the statement were

sample[i] = 'A'; 

we could not identify the problem until i was set during execution to a too-big subscript. It would be useful if, during execution, the system produced an error message warning of a subscript out of bounds. Unfortunately, in some languages, buffer sizes do not have to be predefined, so there is no way to detect an out-of-bounds error. More importantly, the code needed to check each subscript against its potential maximum value takes time and space during execution, and the resources are applied to catch a problem that occurs relatively infrequently. Even if the compiler were careful in analyzing the buffer declaration and use, this same problem can be caused with pointers, for which there is no reasonable way to define a proper limit. Thus, some compilers do not generate the code to check for exceeding bounds.

Let us examine this problem more closely. It is important to recognize that the potential overflow causes a serious problem only in some instances. The problem's occurrence depends on what is adjacent to the array sample. For example, suppose each of the ten elements of the array sample is filled with the letter A and the erroneous reference uses the letter B, as follows:

for (i=0; i<=9; i++) sample[i] = 'A'; sample[10] = 'B' 

All program and data elements are in memory during execution, sharing space with the operating system, other code, and resident routines. So there are four cases to consider in deciding where the 'B' goes, as shown in Figure 3-1. If the extra character overflows into the user's data space, it simply overwrites an existing variable value (or it may be written into an as-yet unused location), perhaps affecting the program's result, but affecting no other program or data.

Figure 1FIGURE 3-1 Places Where a Buffer Can Overflow.

In the second case, the 'B' goes into the user's program area. If it overlays an already executed instruction (which will not be executed again), the user should perceive no effect. If it overlays an instruction that is not yet executed, the machine will try to execute an instruction with operation code 0x42, the internal code for the character 'B'. If there is no instruction with operation code 0x42, the system will halt on an illegal instruction exception. Otherwise, the machine will use subsequent bytes as if they were the rest of the instruction, with success or failure depending on the meaning of the contents. Again, only the user is likely to experience an effect.

The most interesting cases occur when the system owns the space immediately after the array that overflows. Spilling over into system data or code areas produces similar results to those for the user's space: computing with a faulty value or trying to execute an improper operation.

Security Implication

Let us suppose that a malicious person understands the damage that can be done by a buffer overflow; that is, we are dealing with more than simply a normal, errant programmer. The malicious programmer looks at the four cases illustrated in Figure 3-1 and thinks deviously about the last two: What data values could the attacker insert just after the buffer so as to cause mischief or damage, and what planned instruction codes could the system be forced to execute? There are many possible answers, some of which are more malevolent than others. Here, we present two buffer overflow attacks that are used frequently. (See [ALE96] for more details.) First, the attacker may replace code in the system space. Remember that every program is invoked by the operating system and that the operating system may run with higher privileges than those of a regular program. Thus, if the attacker can gain control by masquerading as the operating system, the attacker can execute many commands in a powerful role. Therefore, by replacing a few instructions right after returning from his or her own procedure, the attacker can get control back from the operating system, possibly with raised privileges. If the buffer overflows into system code space, the attacker merely inserts overflow data that correspond to the machine code for instructions.

On the other hand, the attacker may make use of the stack pointer or the return register. Subprocedures calls are handled with a stack, a data structure in which the most recent item inserted is the next one removed (last arrived, first served). This structure works well because procedure calls can be nested, with each return causing control to transfer back to the immediately preceding routine at its point of execution. Each time a procedure is called, its parameters, the return address (the address immediately after its call), and other local values are pushed onto a stack. An old stack pointer is also pushed onto the stack, and a stack pointer register is reloaded with the address of these new values. Then, control is transferred to the subprocedure.

As the subprocedure executes, it fetches parameters that it finds by using the address pointed to by the stack pointer. Typically, the stack pointer is a register in the processor. Therefore, by causing an overflow into the stack, the attacker can change either the old stack pointer (changing the context for the calling procedure) or the return address (causing control to transfer where the attacker wants when the subprocedure returns). Changing the context or return address allows the attacker to redirect execution to a block of code the attacker wants.

In both these cases, a little experimentation is needed to determine where the overflow is and how to control it. But the work to be done is relatively small—probably a day or two for a competent analyst. These buffer overflows are carefully explained in a paper by Mudge [MUD95] of the famed l0pht computer security group.

An alternative style of buffer overflow occurs when parameter values are passed into a routine, especially when the parameters are passed to a web server on the Inter-net. Parameters are passed in the URL line, with a syntax similar to http://www.somesite.com/subpage/userinput&parm1=(808)555-1212&parm2=2004Jan01

In this example, the page userinput receives two parameters, parm1 with value (808)555-1212 (perhaps a U.S. telephone number) and parm2 with value 2004Jan01 (perhaps a date). The web browser on the caller's machine will accept values from a user who probably completes fields on a form. The browser encodes those values and transmits them back to the server's web site.

The attacker might question what the server would do with a really long telephone number, say, one with 500 or 1000 digits. But, you say, no telephone in the world has such a telephone number; that is probably exactly what the developer thought, so the developer may have allocated 15 or 20 bytes for an expected maximum length telephone number. Will the program crash with 500 digits? And if it crashes, can it be made to crash in a predictable and usable way? (For the answer to this question, see Litchfield's investigation of the Microsoft dialer program [LIT99].) Passing a very long string to a web server is a slight variation on the classic buffer overflow, but no less effective.

As noted above, buffer overflows have existed almost as long as higher-level programming languages with arrays. For a long time they were simply a minor annoyance to programmers and users, a cause of errors and sometimes even system crashes. Rather recently, attackers have used them as vehicles to cause first a system crash and then a controlled failure with a serious security implication. The large number of security vulnerabilities based on buffer overflows shows that developers must pay more attention now to what had previously been thought to be just a minor annoyance.

Incomplete Mediation

Incomplete mediation is another security problem that has been with us for decades. Attackers are exploiting it to cause security problems.


Consider the example of the previous section:


The two parameters look like a telephone number and a date. Probably the client's (user's) web browser enters those two values in their specified format for easy processing on the server's side. What would happen if parm2 were submitted as 1800Jan01? Or 1800Feb30? Or 2048Min32? Or 1Aardvark2Many?

Something would likely fail. As with buffer overflows, one possibility is that the system would fail catastrophically, with a routine's failing on a data type error as it tried to handle a month named "Min" or even a year (like 1800) which was out of range. Another possibility is that the receiving program would continue to execute but would generate a very wrong result. (For example, imagine the amount of interest due today on a billing error with a start date of 1 Jan 1800.) Then again, the processing server might have a default condition, deciding to treat 1Aardvark2Many as 3 July 1947. The possibilities are endless.

One way to address the potential problems is to try to anticipate them. For instance, the programmer in the examples above may have written code to check for correctness on the client's side (that is, the user's browser). The client program can search for and screen out errors. Or, to prevent the use of nonsense data, the program can restrict choices only to valid ones. For example, the program supplying the parameters might have solicited them by using a drop-down box or choice list from which only the twelve conventional months would have been possible choices. Similarly, the year could have been tested to ensure that the value was between 1995 and 2005, and date numbers would have to have been appropriate for the months in which they occur (no 30th of February, for example). Using these verification techniques, the programmer may have felt well insulated from the possible problems a careless or malicious user could cause.

However, the program is still vulnerable. By packing the result into the return URL, the programmer left these data fields in a place accessible to (and changeable by) the user. In particular, the user could edit the URL line, change any parameter values, and resend the line. On the server side, there is no way for the server to tell if the response line came from the client's browser or as a result of the user's editing the URL directly. We say in this case that the data values are not completely mediated: The sensitive data (namely, the parameter values) are in an exposed, uncontrolled condition.

Security Implication

Incomplete mediation is easy to exploit, but it has been exercised less often than buffer overflows. Nevertheless, unchecked data values represent a serious potential vulnerability.

To demonstrate this flaw's security implications, we use a real example; only the name of the vendor has been changed to protect the guilty. Things, Inc., was a very large, international vendor of consumer products, called Objects. The company was ready to sell its Objects through a web site, using what appeared to be a standard e-commerce application. The management at Things decided to let some of its in-house developers produce the web site so that its customers could order Objects directly from the web.

To accompany the web site, Things developed a complete price list of its Objects, including pictures, descriptions, and drop-down menus for size, shape, color, scent, and any other properties. For example, a customer on the web could choose to buy 20 of part number 555A Objects. If the price of one such part were $10, the web server would correctly compute the price of the 20 parts to be $200. Then the customer could decide whether to have the Objects shipped by boat, by ground transportation, or sent electronically. If the customer were to choose boat delivery, the customer's web browser would complete a form with parameters like these:


So far, so good; everything in the parameter passage looks correct. But this procedure leaves the parameter statement open for malicious tampering. Things should not need to pass the price of the items back to itself as an input parameter; presumably Things knows how much its Objects cost, and they are unlikely to change dramatically since the time the price was quoted a few screens earlier.

A malicious attacker may decide to exploit this peculiarity by supplying instead the following URL, where the price has been reduced from $205 to $25:


Surprise! It worked. The attacker could have ordered Objects from Things in any quantity at any price. And yes, this code was running on the web site for a while before the problem was detected. From a security perspective, the most serious concern about this flaw was the length of time that it could have run undetected. Had the whole world suddenly made a rush to Things's web site and bought Objects at a fraction of their price, Things probably would have noticed. But Things is large enough that it would never have detected a few customers a day choosing prices that were similar to (but smaller than) the real price, say 30 percent off. The e-commerce division would have shown a slightly smaller profit than other divisions, but the difference probably would not have been enough to raise anyone's eyebrows; the vulnerability could have gone unnoticed for years. Fortunately Things hired a consultant to do a routine review of its code, and the consultant found the error quickly.

This web program design flaw is easy to imagine in other web settings. Those of us interested in security must ask ourselves how many similar problems are there in running code today? And how will those vulnerabilities ever be found?

Time-of-Check to Time-of-Use Errors

The third programming flaw we investigate involves synchronization. To improve efficiency, modern processors and operating systems usually change the order in which instructions and procedures are executed. In particular, instructions that appear to be adjacent may not actually be executed immediately after each other, either because of intentionally changed order or because of the effects of other processes in concurrent execution.


Access control is a fundamental part of computer security; we want to make sure that only those who should access an object are allowed that access. (We explore the access control mechanisms in operating systems in greater detail in Chapter 4.) Every requested access must be governed by an access policy stating who is allowed access to what; then the request must be mediated by an access policy enforcement agent. But an incomplete mediation problem occurs when access is not checked universally. The time-of-check to time-of-use (TOCTTOU) flaw concerns mediation that is performed with a "bait and switch" in the middle. It is also known as a serialization or synchronization flaw.

To understand the nature of this flaw, consider a person's buying a sculpture that costs $100. The buyer removes five $20 bills from a wallet, carefully counts them in front of the seller, and lays them on the table. Then the seller turns around to write a receipt. While the seller's back is turned, the buyer takes back one $20 bill. When the seller turns around, the buyer hands over the stack of bills, takes the receipt, and leaves with the sculpture. Between the time when the security was checked (counting the bills) and the access (exchanging the sculpture for the bills), a condition changed: what was checked is no longer valid when the object (that is, the sculpture) is accessed.

A similar situation can occur with computing systems. Suppose a request to access a file were presented as a data structure, with the name of the file and the mode of access presented in the structure. An example of such a structure is shown in Figure 3-2.

Figure 2FIGURE 3-2 Data Structure for File Access.

The data structure is essentially a "work ticket," requiring a stamp of authorization; once authorized, it will be put on a queue of things to be done. Normally the access control mediator receives the data structure, determines whether the access should be allowed, and either rejects the access and stops or allows the access and forwards the data structure to the file handler for processing.

To carry out this authorization sequence, the access control mediator would have to look up the file name (and the user identity and any other relevant parameters) in tables. The mediator could compare the names in the table to the file name in the data structure to determine whether access is appropriate. More likely, the mediator would copy the file name into its own local storage area and compare from there. Comparing from the copy leaves the data structure in the user's area, under the user's control.

It is at this point that the incomplete mediation flaw can be exploited. While the mediator is checking access rights for the file my_file, the user could change the file name descriptor to your_file, the value shown in Figure 3-3. Having read the work ticket once, the mediator would not be expected to reread the ticket before approving it; the mediator would approve the access and send the now-modified descriptor to the file handler.

Figure 3FIGURE 3-3 Modified Data.

The problem is called a time-of-check to time-of-use flaw because it exploits the delay between the two times. That is, between the time the access was checked and the time the result of the check was used, a change occurred, invalidating the result of the check.

Security Implication

The security implication here is pretty clear: Checking one action and performing another is an example of ineffective access control. We must be wary whenever there is a time lag, making sure that there is no way to corrupt the check's results during that interval.

Fortunately, there are ways to prevent exploitation of the time lag. One way to do so is to use digital signatures and certificates. As described in Chapter 2, a digital signature is a sequence of bits applied with public key cryptography, so that many people—using a public key—can verify the authenticity of the bits, but only one person—using the corresponding private key—could have created them. In this case, the time of check is when the person signs, and the time of use is when anyone verifies the signature.

Suppose the signer's private key is disclosed some time before its time of use. In that case, we do not know for sure that the signer did indeed "sign" the digital signature; it might have been a malicious attacker acting with the private key of the signer. To counter this vulnerability, a public key cryptographic infrastructure includes a mechanism called a key revocation list, for reporting a revoked public key—one that had been disclosed, was feared disclosed or lost, became inoperative, or for any other reason should no longer be taken as valid. The recipient must check the key revocation list before accepting a digital signature as valid.

Combinations of Nonmalicious Program Flaws

These three vulnerabilities are bad enough when each is considered on its own. But perhaps the worst aspect of all three flaws is that they can be used together, as one step in a multistep attack. An attacker may not be content with causing a buffer overflow. Instead the attacker may begin a three-pronged attack by using a buffer overflow to disrupt all execution of arbitrary code on a machine. At the same time, the attacker may exploit a time-of-check to time-of-use flaw to add a new user ID to the system. The attacker then logs in as the new user and exploits an incomplete mediation flaw to obtain privileged status, and so forth. The clever attacker uses flaws as common building blocks to build a complex attack. For this reason, we must know about and protect against even simple flaws. (See Sidebar 3-3 for other examples of the effects of unintentional errors.) Unfortunately, these kinds of flaws are widespread and dangerous. As we will see in the next section, innocuous-seeming program flaws can be exploited by malicious attackers to plant intentionally harmful code.

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