Common Weakness Enumeration

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CWE-590: Free of Memory not on the Heap

Weakness ID: 590
Abstraction: Variant
Structure: Simple
Status: Incomplete
Presentation Filter:
+ Description
The application calls free() on a pointer to memory that was not allocated using associated heap allocation functions such as malloc(), calloc(), or realloc().
+ Extended Description
When free() is called on an invalid pointer, the program's memory management data structures may become corrupted. This corruption can cause the program to crash or, in some circumstances, an attacker may be able to cause free() to operate on controllable memory locations to modify critical program variables or execute code.
+ 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)
ChildOfVariantVariant - a weakness that is described at a very low level of detail, typically limited to a specific language or technology. More specific than a Base weakness.762Mismatched Memory Management Routines
CanPrecedeBaseBase - a weakness that is described in an abstract fashion, but with sufficient details to infer specific methods for detection and prevention. More general than a Variant weakness, but more specific than a Class weakness.123Write-what-where Condition
+ Relevant to the view "Development Concepts" (CWE-699)
MemberOfCategoryCategory - a CWE entry that contains a set of other entries that share a common characteristic.399Resource Management Errors
+ 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.

+ 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.


Technical Impact: Execute Unauthorized Code or Commands; Modify Memory

There is the potential for arbitrary code execution with privileges of the vulnerable program via a "write, what where" primitive. If pointers to memory which hold user information are freed, a malicious user will be able to write 4 bytes anywhere in memory.
+ Demonstrative Examples

Example 1

In this example, an array of record_t structs, bar, is allocated automatically on the stack as a local variable and the programmer attempts to call free() on the array. The consequences will vary based on the implementation of free(), but it will not succeed in deallocating the memory.

(bad code)
Example Language:
void foo(){
record_t bar[MAX_SIZE];

/* do something interesting with bar */


This example shows the array allocated globally, as part of the data segment of memory and the programmer attempts to call free() on the array.

(bad code)
Example Language:
record_t bar[MAX_SIZE]; //Global var
void foo(){

/* do something interesting with bar */

Instead, if the programmer wanted to dynamically manage the memory, malloc() or calloc() should have been used.

(good code)
void foo(){
record_t *bar = (record_t*)malloc(MAX_SIZE*sizeof(record_t));

/* do something interesting with bar */


Additionally, you can pass global variables to free() when they are pointers to dynamically allocated memory.

(good code)
record_t *bar; //Global var
void foo(){
bar = (record_t*)malloc(MAX_SIZE*sizeof(record_t));

/* do something interesting with bar */

+ Potential Mitigations

Phase: Implementation

Only free pointers that you have called malloc on previously. This is the recommended solution. Keep track of which pointers point at the beginning of valid chunks and free them only once.

Phase: Implementation

Before freeing a pointer, the programmer should make sure that the pointer was previously allocated on the heap and that the memory belongs to the programmer. Freeing an unallocated pointer will cause undefined behavior in the program.

Phase: Architecture and Design

Strategy: Libraries or Frameworks

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

For example, glibc in Linux provides protection against free of invalid pointers.

Phase: Architecture and Design

Use a language that provides abstractions for memory allocation and deallocation.

Phase: Testing

Use a tool that dynamically detects memory management problems, such as valgrind.
+ 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.
MemberOfCategoryCategory - a CWE entry that contains a set of other entries that share a common characteristic.742CERT C Secure Coding (2008 Version) Section 08 - Memory Management (MEM)
MemberOfCategoryCategory - a CWE entry that contains a set of other entries that share a common characteristic.876CERT C++ Secure Coding Section 08 - Memory Management (MEM)
MemberOfCategoryCategory - a CWE entry that contains a set of other entries that share a common characteristic.969SFP Secondary Cluster: Faulty Memory Release
+ Notes


In C++, if the new operator was used to allocate the memory, it may be allocated with the malloc(), calloc() or realloc() family of functions in the implementation. Someone aware of this behavior might choose to map this problem to CWE-590 or to its parent, CWE-762, depending on their perspective.
+ Taxonomy Mappings
Mapped Taxonomy NameNode IDFitMapped Node Name
CERT C Secure CodingMEM34-CExactOnly free memory allocated dynamically
CERT C Secure CodingWIN30-CImpreciseProperly pair allocation and deallocation functions
Software Fault PatternsSFP12Faulty Memory Release
+ References
[REF-480] "Valgrind". <>.
+ Content History
Modification DateModifierOrganization
2008-07-01Eric DalciCigital
updated Time_of_Introduction
2008-09-08CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated Description, Relationships, Other_Notes
2008-11-24CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated Relationships, Taxonomy_Mappings
2009-01-12CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated Potential_Mitigations
2009-05-27CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated Common_Consequences, Demonstrative_Examples, Description, Maintenance_Notes, Name, Other_Notes, Potential_Mitigations, References, Relationships
2011-06-01CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated Common_Consequences
2011-09-13CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated Relationships, Taxonomy_Mappings
2012-05-11CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated Relationships
2012-10-30CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated Potential_Mitigations
2014-02-18CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated Potential_Mitigations
2014-07-30CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated Relationships, Taxonomy_Mappings
2017-11-08CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated Taxonomy_Mappings
Previous Entry Names
Change DatePrevious Entry Name
2008-04-11Improperly Freeing Heap Memory
2009-05-27Free of Invalid Pointer Not on the Heap
2009-10-29Free of Memory not on the Heap

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Page Last Updated: March 29, 2018