Common Weakness Enumeration

A Community-Developed List of Software Weakness Types

CWE/SANS Top 25 Most Dangerous Software Errors
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CWE-754: Improper Check for Unusual or Exceptional Conditions

Weakness ID: 754
Abstraction: Class
Structure: Simple
Status: Incomplete
Presentation Filter:
+ Description
The software does not check or improperly checks for unusual or exceptional conditions that are not expected to occur frequently during day to day operation of the software.
+ Extended Description

The programmer may assume that certain events or conditions will never occur or do not need to be worried about, such as low memory conditions, lack of access to resources due to restrictive permissions, or misbehaving clients or components. However, attackers may intentionally trigger these unusual conditions, thus violating the programmer's assumptions, possibly introducing instability, incorrect behavior, or a vulnerability.

Note that this entry is not exclusively about the use of exceptions and exception handling, which are mechanisms for both checking and handling unusual or unexpected conditions.

+ 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 "Architectural Concepts" (CWE-1008)
MemberOfCategoryCategory1012Cross Cutting
+ Relevant to the view "Development Concepts" (CWE-699)
MemberOfCategoryCategory840Business Logic Errors
ChildOfClassClass703Improper Check or Handling of Exceptional Conditions
+ Background Details
Many functions will return some value about the success of their actions. This will alert the program whether or not to handle any errors caused by that function.
+ 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.

ImplementationREALIZATION: This weakness is caused during implementation of an architectural security tactic.
+ 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.


Class: Language-Independent (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.


Technical Impact: DoS: Crash, Exit, or Restart; Unexpected State

The data which were produced as a result of a function call could be in a bad state upon return. If the return value is not checked, then this bad data may be used in operations, possibly leading to a crash or other unintended behaviors.
+ Likelihood Of Exploit
+ Demonstrative Examples

Example 1

Consider the following code segment:

(bad code)
Example Language:
char buf[10], cp_buf[10];
fgets(buf, 10, stdin);
strcpy(cp_buf, buf);

The programmer expects that when fgets() returns, buf will contain a null-terminated string of length 9 or less. But if an I/O error occurs, fgets() will not null-terminate buf. Furthermore, if the end of the file is reached before any characters are read, fgets() returns without writing anything to buf. In both of these situations, fgets() signals that something unusual has happened by returning NULL, but in this code, the warning will not be noticed. The lack of a null terminator in buf can result in a buffer overflow in the subsequent call to strcpy().

Example 2

The following code does not check to see if memory allocation succeeded before attempting to use the pointer returned by malloc().

(bad code)
Example Language:
buf = (char*) malloc(req_size);
strncpy(buf, xfer, req_size);

The traditional defense of this coding error is: "If my program runs out of memory, it will fail. It doesn't matter whether I handle the error or simply allow the program to die with a segmentation fault when it tries to dereference the null pointer." This argument ignores three important considerations:

  • Depending upon the type and size of the application, it may be possible to free memory that is being used elsewhere so that execution can continue.
  • It is impossible for the program to perform a graceful exit if required. If the program is performing an atomic operation, it can leave the system in an inconsistent state.
  • The programmer has lost the opportunity to record diagnostic information. Did the call to malloc() fail because req_size was too large or because there were too many requests being handled at the same time? Or was it caused by a memory leak that has built up over time? Without handling the error, there is no way to know.

Example 3

The following examples read a file into a byte array.

(bad code)
Example Language: C# 
char[] byteArray = new char[1024];
for (IEnumerator i=users.GetEnumerator(); i.MoveNext() ;i.Current()) {
String userName = (String) i.Current();
String pFileName = PFILE_ROOT + "/" + userName;
StreamReader sr = new StreamReader(pFileName);
sr.Read(byteArray,0,1024);//the file is always 1k bytes
processPFile(userName, byteArray);

(bad code)
Example Language: Java 
FileInputStream fis;
byte[] byteArray = new byte[1024];
for (Iterator i=users.iterator(); i.hasNext();) {
String userName = (String);
String pFileName = PFILE_ROOT + "/" + userName;
FileInputStream fis = new FileInputStream(pFileName);; // the file is always 1k bytes
processPFile(userName, byteArray);

The code loops through a set of users, reading a private data file for each user. The programmer assumes that the files are always 1 kilobyte in size and therefore ignores the return value from Read(). If an attacker can create a smaller file, the program will recycle the remainder of the data from the previous user and treat it as though it belongs to the attacker.

Example 4

The following code does not check to see if the string returned by getParameter() is null before calling the member function compareTo(), potentially causing a NULL dereference.

(bad code)
Example Language: Java 
String itemName = request.getParameter(ITEM_NAME);
if (itemName.compareTo(IMPORTANT_ITEM) == 0) {


The following code does not check to see if the string returned by the Item property is null before calling the member function Equals(), potentially causing a NULL dereference.

(bad code)
Example Language: Java 
String itemName = request.Item(ITEM_NAME);
if (itemName.Equals(IMPORTANT_ITEM)) {


The traditional defense of this coding error is: "I know the requested value will always exist because.... If it does not exist, the program cannot perform the desired behavior so it doesn't matter whether I handle the error or simply allow the program to die dereferencing a null value." But attackers are skilled at finding unexpected paths through programs, particularly when exceptions are involved.

Example 5

The following code shows a system property that is set to null and later dereferenced by a programmer who mistakenly assumes it will always be defined.

(bad code)
Example Language: Java 
String os = System.getProperty("");
if (os.equalsIgnoreCase("Windows 95")) System.out.println("Not supported");

The traditional defense of this coding error is: "I know the requested value will always exist because.... If it does not exist, the program cannot perform the desired behavior so it doesn't matter whether I handle the error or simply allow the program to die dereferencing a null value." But attackers are skilled at finding unexpected paths through programs, particularly when exceptions are involved.

Example 6

The following VB.NET code does not check to make sure that it has read 50 bytes from myfile.txt. This can cause DoDangerousOperation() to operate on an unexpected value.

(bad code)
Example Language: C# 
Dim MyFile As New FileStream("myfile.txt", FileMode.Open, FileAccess.Read, FileShare.Read)
Dim MyArray(50) As Byte
MyFile.Read(MyArray, 0, 50)

In .NET, it is not uncommon for programmers to misunderstand Read() and related methods that are part of many System.IO classes. The stream and reader classes do not consider it to be unusual or exceptional if only a small amount of data becomes available. These classes simply add the small amount of data to the return buffer, and set the return value to the number of bytes or characters read. There is no guarantee that the amount of data returned is equal to the amount of data requested.

Example 7

This example takes an IP address from a user, verifies that it is well formed and then looks up the hostname and copies it into a buffer.

(bad code)
Example Language:
void host_lookup(char *user_supplied_addr){
struct hostent *hp;
in_addr_t *addr;
char hostname[64];
in_addr_t inet_addr(const char *cp);
/*routine that ensures user_supplied_addr is in the right format for conversion */

addr = inet_addr(user_supplied_addr);
hp = gethostbyaddr( addr, sizeof(struct in_addr), AF_INET);
strcpy(hostname, hp->h_name);


If an attacker provides an address that appears to be well-formed, but the address does not resolve to a hostname, then the call to gethostbyaddr() will return NULL. When this occurs, a NULL pointer dereference (CWE-476) will occur in the call to strcpy().

Note that this example is also vulnerable to a buffer overflow (see CWE-119).

Example 8

In the following C/C++ example the method outputStringToFile opens a file in the local filesystem and outputs a string to the file. The input parameters output and filename contain the string to output to the file and the name of the file respectively.

(bad code)
Example Language: C++ 
int outputStringToFile(char *output, char *filename) {



However, this code does not check the return values of the methods openFileToWrite, writeToFile, closeFile to verify that the file was properly opened and closed and that the string was successfully written to the file. The return values for these methods should be checked to determine if the method was successful and allow for detection of errors or unexpected conditions as in the following example.

(good code)
Example Language: C++ 
int outputStringToFile(char *output, char *filename) {
int isOutput = SUCCESS;

int isOpen = openFileToWrite(filename);
if (isOpen == FAIL) {
printf("Unable to open file %s", filename);
isOutput = FAIL;

else {
int isWrite = writeToFile(output);
if (isWrite == FAIL) {
printf("Unable to write to file %s", filename);
isOutput = FAIL;


int isClose = closeFile(filename);
if (isClose == FAIL)
isOutput = FAIL;

return isOutput;


Example 9

In the following Java example the method readFromFile uses a FileReader object to read the contents of a file. The FileReader object is created using the File object readFile, the readFile object is initialized using the setInputFile method. The setInputFile method should be called before calling the readFromFile method.

(bad code)
Example Language: Java 
private File readFile = null;

public void setInputFile(String inputFile) {
// create readFile File object from string containing name of file


public void readFromFile() {
try {
reader = new FileReader(readFile);
// read input file

} catch (FileNotFoundException ex) {...}


However, the readFromFile method does not check to see if the readFile object is null, i.e. has not been initialized, before creating the FileReader object and reading from the input file. The readFromFile method should verify whether the readFile object is null and output an error message and raise an exception if the readFile object is null, as in the following code.

(good code)
Example Language: Java 
private File readFile = null;

public void setInputFile(String inputFile) {
// create readFile File object from string containing name of file


public void readFromFile() {
try {
if (readFile == null) {
System.err.println("Input file has not been set, call setInputFile method before calling openInputFile");
throw NullPointerException;


reader = new FileReader(readFile);
// read input file

} catch (FileNotFoundException ex) {...}
catch (NullPointerException ex) {...}

+ Observed Examples
Unchecked return value leads to resultant integer overflow and code execution.
Program does not check return value when invoking functions to drop privileges, which could leave users with higher privileges than expected by forcing those functions to fail.
Program does not check return value when invoking functions to drop privileges, which could leave users with higher privileges than expected by forcing those functions to fail.
+ Potential Mitigations

Phase: Requirements

Strategy: Language Selection

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

Choose languages with features such as exception handling that force the programmer to anticipate unusual conditions that may generate exceptions. Custom exceptions may need to be developed to handle unusual business-logic conditions. Be careful not to pass sensitive exceptions back to the user (CWE-209, CWE-248).

Phase: Implementation

Check the results of all functions that return a value and verify that the value is expected.

Effectiveness: High

Note: Checking the return value of the function will typically be sufficient, however beware of race conditions (CWE-362) in a concurrent environment.

Phase: Implementation

If using exception handling, catch and throw specific exceptions instead of overly-general exceptions (CWE-396, CWE-397). Catch and handle exceptions as locally as possible so that exceptions do not propagate too far up the call stack (CWE-705). Avoid unchecked or uncaught exceptions where feasible (CWE-248).

Effectiveness: High

Note: Using specific exceptions, and ensuring that exceptions are checked, helps programmers to anticipate and appropriately handle many unusual events that could occur.

Phase: Implementation

Ensure that error messages only contain minimal details that are useful to the intended audience, and nobody else. The messages need to strike the balance between being too cryptic and not being cryptic enough. They should not necessarily reveal the methods that were used to determine the error. Such detailed information can be used to refine the original attack to increase the chances of success.

If errors must be tracked in some detail, capture them in log messages - but consider what could occur if the log messages can be viewed by attackers. Avoid recording highly sensitive information such as passwords in any form. Avoid inconsistent messaging that might accidentally tip off an attacker about internal state, such as whether a username is valid or not.

Exposing additional information to a potential attacker in the context of an exceptional condition can help the attacker determine what attack vectors are most likely to succeed beyond DoS.

Phase: Implementation

Strategy: Input Validation

Assume all input is malicious. Use an "accept known good" input validation strategy, i.e., use a whitelist of acceptable inputs that strictly conform to specifications. Reject any input that does not strictly conform to specifications, or transform it into something that does.

When performing input validation, consider all potentially relevant properties, including length, type of input, the full range of acceptable values, missing or extra inputs, syntax, consistency across related fields, and conformance to business rules. As an example of business rule logic, "boat" may be syntactically valid because it only contains alphanumeric characters, but it is not valid if the input is only expected to contain colors such as "red" or "blue."

Do not rely exclusively on looking for malicious or malformed inputs (i.e., do not rely on a blacklist). A blacklist is likely to miss at least one undesirable input, especially if the code's environment changes. This can give attackers enough room to bypass the intended validation. However, blacklists can be useful for detecting potential attacks or determining which inputs are so malformed that they should be rejected outright.

Note: Performing extensive input validation does not help with handling unusual conditions, but it will minimize their occurrences and will make it more difficult for attackers to trigger them.

Phases: Architecture and Design; Implementation

If the program must fail, ensure that it fails gracefully (fails closed). There may be a temptation to simply let the program fail poorly in cases such as low memory conditions, but an attacker may be able to assert control before the software has fully exited. Alternately, an uncontrolled failure could cause cascading problems with other downstream components; for example, the program could send a signal to a downstream process so the process immediately knows that a problem has occurred and has a better chance of recovery.

Phase: Architecture and Design

Use system limits, which should help to prevent resource exhaustion. However, the software should still handle low resource conditions since they may still occur.
+ Detection Methods

Automated Static Analysis

Automated static analysis may be useful for detecting unusual conditions involving system resources or common programming idioms, but not for violations of business rules.

Effectiveness: Moderate

Manual Dynamic Analysis

Identify error conditions that are not likely to occur during normal usage and trigger them. For example, run the program under low memory conditions, run with insufficient privileges or permissions, interrupt a transaction before it is completed, or disable connectivity to basic network services such as DNS. Monitor the software for any unexpected behavior. If you trigger an unhandled exception or similar error that was discovered and handled by the application's environment, it may still indicate unexpected conditions that were not handled by the application itself.
+ 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.
+ Notes


Sometimes, when a return value can be used to indicate an error, an unchecked return value is a code-layer instance of a missing application-layer check for exceptional conditions. However, return values are not always needed to communicate exceptional conditions. For example, expiration of resources, values passed by reference, asynchronously modified data, sockets, etc. may indicate exceptional conditions without the use of a return value.
+ Taxonomy Mappings
Mapped Taxonomy NameNode IDFitMapped Node Name
CERT Perl Secure CodingEXP31-PLCWE More AbstractDo not suppress or ignore exceptions
+ References
[REF-62] Mark Dowd, John McDonald and Justin Schuh. "The Art of Software Security Assessment". Chapter 7, "Program Building Blocks" Page 341. 1st Edition. Addison Wesley. 2006.
[REF-62] Mark Dowd, John McDonald and Justin Schuh. "The Art of Software Security Assessment". Chapter 1, "Exceptional Conditions," Page 22. 1st Edition. Addison Wesley. 2006.
[REF-44] Michael Howard, David LeBlanc and John Viega. "24 Deadly Sins of Software Security". "Sin 11: Failure to Handle Errors Correctly." Page 183. McGraw-Hill. 2010.
[REF-622] Frank Kim. "Top 25 Series - Rank 15 - Improper Check for Unusual or Exceptional Conditions". SANS Software Security Institute. 2010-03-15. <>.
+ Content History
Submission DateSubmitterOrganization
2009-03-03CWE Content TeamMITRE
New entry for reorganization of CWE-703.
Modification DateModifierOrganization
2009-07-27CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated Relationships
2009-12-28CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated Applicable_Platforms, Likelihood_of_Exploit, Time_of_Introduction
2010-02-16CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated Background_Details, Common_Consequences, Demonstrative_Examples, Description, Detection_Factors, Name, Observed_Examples, Potential_Mitigations, References, Related_Attack_Patterns, Relationship_Notes, Relationships
2010-04-05CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated Demonstrative_Examples, Related_Attack_Patterns
2010-06-21CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated Common_Consequences, Detection_Factors, Potential_Mitigations, References
2010-09-27CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated Potential_Mitigations
2010-12-13CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated Relationship_Notes
2011-03-29CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated Description, Relationships
2011-06-01CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated Common_Consequences
2011-06-27CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated Common_Consequences, Related_Attack_Patterns, Relationships
2011-09-13CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated Relationships, Taxonomy_Mappings
2012-05-11CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated Relationships
2012-10-30CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated Potential_Mitigations
2013-02-21CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated Relationships
2014-07-30CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated Demonstrative_Examples, Relationships
2015-12-07CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated Relationships
2017-01-19CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated Relationships
2017-11-08CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated Modes_of_Introduction, References, Relationships, Taxonomy_Mappings
Previous Entry Names
Change DatePrevious Entry Name
2010-02-16Improper Check for Exceptional Conditions

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Page Last Updated: January 18, 2018