Common Weakness Enumeration

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CWE-590: Free of Memory not on the Heap

Weakness ID: 590
Abstraction: Variant
Status: Incomplete
Presentation Filter:
+ Description

Description Summary

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.

+ Time of Introduction
  • Implementation
+ Common Consequences

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.

+ Relationships
NatureTypeIDNameView(s) this relationship pertains toView(s)
ChildOfCategoryCategory399Resource Management Errors
Development Concepts (primary)699
ChildOfCategoryCategory742CERT C Secure Coding Section 08 - Memory Management (MEM)
Weaknesses Addressed by the CERT C Secure Coding Standard (primary)734
ChildOfWeakness VariantWeakness Variant762Mismatched Memory Management Routines
Research Concepts (primary)1000
ChildOfCategoryCategory876CERT C++ Secure Coding Section 08 - Memory Management (MEM)
Weaknesses Addressed by the CERT C++ Secure Coding Standard (primary)868
ChildOfCategoryCategory969SFP Secondary Cluster: Faulty Memory Release
Software Fault Pattern (SFP) Clusters (primary)888
CanPrecedeWeakness BaseWeakness Base123Write-what-where Condition
Research Concepts1000
+ Affected Resources
  • Memory
+ Taxonomy Mappings
Mapped Taxonomy NameNode IDFitMapped Node Name
CERT C Secure CodingMEM34-COnly free memory allocated dynamically
CERT C++ Secure CodingMEM34-CPPOnly free memory allocated dynamically
Software Fault PatternsSFP12Faulty Memory Release
+ References
"Valgrind". <>.
+ Maintenance 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.

+ Content History
Modification DateModifierOrganizationSource
2008-07-01Eric DalciCigitalExternal
updated Time_of_Introduction
2008-09-08CWE Content TeamMITREInternal
updated Description, Relationships, Other_Notes
2008-11-24CWE Content TeamMITREInternal
updated Relationships, Taxonomy_Mappings
2009-01-12CWE Content TeamMITREInternal
updated Potential_Mitigations
2009-05-27CWE Content TeamMITREInternal
updated Common_Consequences, Demonstrative_Examples, Description, Maintenance_Notes, Name, Other_Notes, Potential_Mitigations, References, Relationships
2011-06-01CWE Content TeamMITREInternal
updated Common_Consequences
2011-09-13CWE Content TeamMITREInternal
updated Relationships, Taxonomy_Mappings
2012-05-11CWE Content TeamMITREInternal
updated Relationships
2012-10-30CWE Content TeamMITREInternal
updated Potential_Mitigations
2014-02-18CWE Content TeamMITREInternal
updated Potential_Mitigations
2014-07-30CWE Content TeamMITREInternal
updated Relationships, 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: January 18, 2017