Common Weakness Enumeration

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CWE-14: Compiler Removal of Code to Clear Buffers

Weakness ID: 14
Abstraction: Base
Structure: Simple
Status: Draft
Presentation Filter:
+ Description
Sensitive memory is cleared according to the source code, but compiler optimizations leave the memory untouched when it is not read from again, aka "dead store removal."
+ Extended Description

This compiler optimization error occurs when:

1. Secret data are stored in memory.
2. The secret data are scrubbed from memory by overwriting its contents.
3. The source code is compiled using an optimizing compiler, which identifies and removes the function that overwrites the contents as a dead store because the memory is not used subsequently.
+ Relationships

The table(s) below shows the weaknesses and high level categories that are related to this weakness. These relationships are defined as ChildOf, ParentOf, MemberOf and give insight to similar items that may exist at higher and lower levels of abstraction. In addition, relationships such as PeerOf and CanAlsoBe are defined to show similar weaknesses that the user may want to explore.

+ Relevant to the view "Research Concepts" (CWE-1000)
+ Relevant to the view "Development Concepts" (CWE-699)
+ Modes Of Introduction

The different Modes of Introduction provide information about how and when this weakness may be introduced. The Phase identifies a point in the software life cycle at which introduction may occur, while the Note provides a typical scenario related to introduction during the given phase.

Build and Compilation
+ Applicable Platforms
The listings below show possible areas for which the given weakness could appear. These may be for specific named Languages, Operating Systems, Architectures, Paradigms, Technologies, or a class of such platforms. The platform is listed along with how frequently the given weakness appears for that instance.


C (Undetermined Prevalence)

C++ (Undetermined Prevalence)

+ Common Consequences

The table below specifies different individual consequences associated with the weakness. The Scope identifies the application security area that is violated, while the Impact describes the negative technical impact that arises if an adversary succeeds in exploiting this weakness. The Likelihood provides information about how likely the specific consequence is expected to be seen relative to the other consequences in the list. For example, there may be high likelihood that a weakness will be exploited to achieve a certain impact, but a low likelihood that it will be exploited to achieve a different impact.

Access Control

Technical Impact: Read Memory; Bypass Protection Mechanism

This weakness will allow data that has not been cleared from memory to be read. If this data contains sensitive password information, then an attacker can read the password and use the information to bypass protection mechanisms.
+ Demonstrative Examples

Example 1

The following code reads a password from the user, uses the password to connect to a back-end mainframe and then attempts to scrub the password from memory using memset().

(bad code)
Example Language:
void GetData(char *MFAddr) {
char pwd[64];
if (GetPasswordFromUser(pwd, sizeof(pwd))) {

if (ConnectToMainframe(MFAddr, pwd)) {
// Interaction with mainframe


memset(pwd, 0, sizeof(pwd));


The code in the example will behave correctly if it is executed verbatim, but if the code is compiled using an optimizing compiler, such as Microsoft Visual C++ .NET or GCC 3.x, then the call to memset() will be removed as a dead store because the buffer pwd is not used after its value is overwritten [18]. Because the buffer pwd contains a sensitive value, the application may be vulnerable to attack if the data are left memory resident. If attackers are able to access the correct region of memory, they may use the recovered password to gain control of the system.

It is common practice to overwrite sensitive data manipulated in memory, such as passwords or cryptographic keys, in order to prevent attackers from learning system secrets. However, with the advent of optimizing compilers, programs do not always behave as their source code alone would suggest. In the example, the compiler interprets the call to memset() as dead code because the memory being written to is not subsequently used, despite the fact that there is clearly a security motivation for the operation to occur. The problem here is that many compilers, and in fact many programming languages, do not take this and other security concerns into consideration in their efforts to improve efficiency.

Attackers typically exploit this type of vulnerability by using a core dump or runtime mechanism to access the memory used by a particular application and recover the secret information. Once an attacker has access to the secret information, it is relatively straightforward to further exploit the system and possibly compromise other resources with which the application interacts.

+ Potential Mitigations

Phase: Implementation

Store the sensitive data in a "volatile" memory location if available.

Phase: Build and Compilation

If possible, configure your compiler so that it does not remove dead stores.

Phase: Architecture and Design

Where possible, encrypt sensitive data that are used by a software system.
+ Detection Methods

Black Box

This specific weakness is impossible to detect using black box methods. While an analyst could examine memory to see that it has not been scrubbed, an analysis of the executable would not be successful. This is because the compiler has already removed the relevant code. Only the source code shows whether the programmer intended to clear the memory or not, so this weakness is indistinguishable from others.

White Box

This weakness is only detectable using white box methods (see black box detection factor). Careful analysis is required to determine if the code is likely to be removed by the compiler.
+ Affected Resources
  • Memory
+ Memberships
This MemberOf Relationships table shows additional CWE Categories and Views that reference this weakness as a member. This information is often useful in understanding where a weakness fits within the context of external information sources.
+ Taxonomy Mappings
Mapped Taxonomy NameNode IDFitMapped Node Name
7 Pernicious KingdomsInsecure Compiler Optimization
PLOVERSensitive memory uncleared by compiler optimization
OWASP Top Ten 2004A8CWE More SpecificInsecure Storage
CERT C Secure CodingMSC06-CBe aware of compiler optimization when dealing with sensitive data
Software Fault PatternsSFP23Exposed Data
+ References
[REF-7] Michael Howard and David LeBlanc. "Writing Secure Code". Chapter 9, "A Compiler Optimization Caveat" Page 322. 2nd Edition. Microsoft Press. 2002-12-04. <>.
[REF-124] Michael Howard. "When scrubbing secrets in memory doesn't work". BugTraq. 2002-11-05. <>.
[REF-125] Michael Howard. "Some Bad News and Some Good News". Microsoft. 2002-10-21. <>.
[REF-126] Joseph Wagner. "GNU GCC: Optimizer Removes Code Necessary for Security". Bugtraq. 2002-11-16. <>.
+ Content History
Submission DateSubmitterOrganization
7 Pernicious Kingdoms
Modification DateModifierOrganization
2008-07-01Eric DalciCigital
updated Time_of_Introduction
2008-09-08CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated Relationships, Other_Notes, Taxonomy_Mappings
2008-10-14CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated Relationships
2008-11-24CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated Applicable_Platforms, Description, Detection_Factors, Other_Notes, Potential_Mitigations, Relationships, Taxonomy_Mappings, Time_of_Introduction
2009-05-27CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated Demonstrative_Examples
2010-02-16CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated References
2011-06-01CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated Common_Consequences
2011-09-13CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated Relationships, Taxonomy_Mappings
2012-05-11CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated Common_Consequences, References, Relationships
2014-07-30CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated Relationships, Taxonomy_Mappings
2017-01-19CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated Relationships
2017-11-08CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated References, Relationships, Taxonomy_Mappings
Previous Entry Names
Change DatePrevious Entry Name
2008-04-11Insecure Compiler Optimization

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Page Last Updated: January 18, 2018