Common Weakness Enumeration

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CWE-122: Heap-based Buffer Overflow

Weakness ID: 122
Abstraction: Variant
Structure: Simple
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+ Description
A heap overflow condition is a buffer overflow, where the buffer that can be overwritten is allocated in the heap portion of memory, generally meaning that the buffer was allocated using a routine such as malloc().
+ Relationships
Section HelpThis table 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)
ChildOfBaseBase - a weakness that is still mostly independent of a resource or technology, but with sufficient details to provide specific methods for detection and prevention. Base level weaknesses typically describe issues in terms of 2 or 3 of the following dimensions: behavior, property, technology, language, and resource.787Out-of-bounds Write
ChildOfBaseBase - a weakness that is still mostly independent of a resource or technology, but with sufficient details to provide specific methods for detection and prevention. Base level weaknesses typically describe issues in terms of 2 or 3 of the following dimensions: behavior, property, technology, language, and resource.788Access of Memory Location After End of Buffer
+ Modes Of Introduction
Section HelpThe different Modes of Introduction provide information about how and when this weakness may be introduced. The Phase identifies a point in the life cycle at which introduction may occur, while the Note provides a typical scenario related to introduction during the given phase.
+ Applicable Platforms
Section HelpThis listing shows 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
Section HelpThis table 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; DoS: Resource Consumption (CPU); DoS: Resource Consumption (Memory)

Buffer overflows generally lead to crashes. Other attacks leading to lack of availability are possible, including putting the program into an infinite loop.
Access Control

Technical Impact: Execute Unauthorized Code or Commands; Bypass Protection Mechanism; Modify Memory

Buffer overflows often can be used to execute arbitrary code, which is usually outside the scope of a program's implicit security policy. Besides important user data, heap-based overflows can be used to overwrite function pointers that may be living in memory, pointing it to the attacker's code. Even in applications that do not explicitly use function pointers, the run-time will usually leave many in memory. For example, object methods in C++ are generally implemented using function pointers. Even in C programs, there is often a global offset table used by the underlying runtime.
Access Control

Technical Impact: Execute Unauthorized Code or Commands; Bypass Protection Mechanism; Other

When the consequence is arbitrary code execution, this can often be used to subvert any other security service.
+ Likelihood Of Exploit
+ Demonstrative Examples

Example 1

While buffer overflow examples can be rather complex, it is possible to have very simple, yet still exploitable, heap-based buffer overflows:

(bad code)
Example Language:
#define BUFSIZE 256
int main(int argc, char **argv) {
char *buf;
buf = (char *)malloc(sizeof(char)*BUFSIZE);
strcpy(buf, argv[1]);

The buffer is allocated heap memory with a fixed size, but there is no guarantee the string in argv[1] will not exceed this size and cause an overflow.

Example 2

This example applies an encoding procedure to an input string and stores it into a buffer.

(bad code)
Example Language:
char * copy_input(char *user_supplied_string){
int i, dst_index;
char *dst_buf = (char*)malloc(4*sizeof(char) * MAX_SIZE);
if ( MAX_SIZE <= strlen(user_supplied_string) ){
die("user string too long, die evil hacker!");
dst_index = 0;
for ( i = 0; i < strlen(user_supplied_string); i++ ){
if( '&' == user_supplied_string[i] ){
dst_buf[dst_index++] = '&';
dst_buf[dst_index++] = 'a';
dst_buf[dst_index++] = 'm';
dst_buf[dst_index++] = 'p';
dst_buf[dst_index++] = ';';
else if ('<' == user_supplied_string[i] ){

/* encode to &lt; */
else dst_buf[dst_index++] = user_supplied_string[i];
return dst_buf;

The programmer attempts to encode the ampersand character in the user-controlled string, however the length of the string is validated before the encoding procedure is applied. Furthermore, the programmer assumes encoding expansion will only expand a given character by a factor of 4, while the encoding of the ampersand expands by 5. As a result, when the encoding procedure expands the string it is possible to overflow the destination buffer if the attacker provides a string of many ampersands.

+ Observed Examples
Chain: integer signedness error (CWE-195) passes signed comparison, leading to heap overflow (CWE-122)
Chain: product does not handle when an input string is not NULL terminated (CWE-170), leading to buffer over-read (CWE-125) or heap-based buffer overflow (CWE-122).
Chain: machine-learning product can have a heap-based buffer overflow (CWE-122) when some integer-oriented bounds are calculated by using ceiling() and floor() on floating point values (CWE-1339)
+ Potential Mitigations
Pre-design: Use a language or compiler that performs automatic bounds checking.

Phase: Architecture and Design

Use an abstraction library to abstract away risky APIs. Not a complete solution.

Phases: Operation; Build and Compilation

Strategy: Environment Hardening

Use automatic buffer overflow detection mechanisms that are offered by certain compilers or compiler extensions. Examples include: the Microsoft Visual Studio /GS flag, Fedora/Red Hat FORTIFY_SOURCE GCC flag, StackGuard, and ProPolice, which provide various mechanisms including canary-based detection and range/index checking.

D3-SFCV (Stack Frame Canary Validation) from D3FEND [REF-1334] discusses canary-based detection in detail.

Effectiveness: Defense in Depth


This is not necessarily a complete solution, since these mechanisms only detect certain types of overflows. In addition, the result is still a denial of service, since the typical response is to exit the application.

Phases: Operation; Build and Compilation

Strategy: Environment Hardening

Run or compile the software using features or extensions that randomly arrange the positions of a program's executable and libraries in memory. Because this makes the addresses unpredictable, it can prevent an attacker from reliably jumping to exploitable code.

Examples include Address Space Layout Randomization (ASLR) [REF-58] [REF-60] and Position-Independent Executables (PIE) [REF-64]. Imported modules may be similarly realigned if their default memory addresses conflict with other modules, in a process known as "rebasing" (for Windows) and "prelinking" (for Linux) [REF-1332] using randomly generated addresses. ASLR for libraries cannot be used in conjunction with prelink since it would require relocating the libraries at run-time, defeating the whole purpose of prelinking.

For more information on these techniques see D3-SAOR (Segment Address Offset Randomization) from D3FEND [REF-1335].

Effectiveness: Defense in Depth

Note: These techniques do not provide a complete solution. For instance, exploits frequently use a bug that discloses memory addresses in order to maximize reliability of code execution [REF-1337]. It has also been shown that a side-channel attack can bypass ASLR [REF-1333]

Phase: Implementation

Implement and perform bounds checking on input.

Phase: Implementation

Strategy: Libraries or Frameworks

Do not use dangerous functions such as gets. Look for their safe equivalent, which checks for the boundary.

Phase: Operation

Use OS-level preventative functionality. This is not a complete solution, but it provides some defense in depth.
+ Weakness Ordinalities
(where the weakness exists independent of other weaknesses)
+ Detection Methods


Fuzz testing (fuzzing) is a powerful technique for generating large numbers of diverse inputs - either randomly or algorithmically - and dynamically invoking the code with those inputs. Even with random inputs, it is often capable of generating unexpected results such as crashes, memory corruption, or resource consumption. Fuzzing effectively produces repeatable test cases that clearly indicate bugs, which helps developers to diagnose the issues.

Effectiveness: High

+ Affected Resources
  • Memory
+ Memberships
Section HelpThis 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.970SFP Secondary Cluster: Faulty Buffer Access
MemberOfCategoryCategory - a CWE entry that contains a set of other entries that share a common characteristic.1161SEI CERT C Coding Standard - Guidelines 07. Characters and Strings (STR)
MemberOfCategoryCategory - a CWE entry that contains a set of other entries that share a common characteristic.1399Comprehensive Categorization: Memory Safety
+ Vulnerability Mapping Notes

Usage: Allowed

(this CWE ID could be used to map to real-world vulnerabilities)

Reason: Acceptable-Use


This CWE entry is at the Variant level of abstraction, which is a preferred level of abstraction for mapping to the root causes of vulnerabilities.


Carefully read both the name and description to ensure that this mapping is an appropriate fit. Do not try to 'force' a mapping to a lower-level Base/Variant simply to comply with this preferred level of abstraction.
+ Notes


Heap-based buffer overflows are usually just as dangerous as stack-based buffer overflows.
+ Taxonomy Mappings
Mapped Taxonomy NameNode IDFitMapped Node Name
CLASPHeap overflow
Software Fault PatternsSFP8Faulty Buffer Access
CERT C Secure CodingSTR31-CCWE More SpecificGuarantee that storage for strings has sufficient space for character data and the null terminator
+ References
[REF-7] Michael Howard and David LeBlanc. "Writing Secure Code". Chapter 5, "Heap Overruns" Page 138. 2nd Edition. Microsoft Press. 2002-12-04. <>.
[REF-44] Michael Howard, David LeBlanc and John Viega. "24 Deadly Sins of Software Security". "Sin 5: Buffer Overruns." Page 89. McGraw-Hill. 2010.
[REF-62] Mark Dowd, John McDonald and Justin Schuh. "The Art of Software Security Assessment". Chapter 3, "Nonexecutable Stack", Page 76. 1st Edition. Addison Wesley. 2006.
[REF-62] Mark Dowd, John McDonald and Justin Schuh. "The Art of Software Security Assessment". Chapter 5, "Protection Mechanisms", Page 189. 1st Edition. Addison Wesley. 2006.
[REF-58] Michael Howard. "Address Space Layout Randomization in Windows Vista". <>. URL validated: 2023-04-07.
[REF-60] "PaX". <>. URL validated: 2023-04-07.
[REF-64] Grant Murphy. "Position Independent Executables (PIE)". Red Hat. 2012-11-28. <>. URL validated: 2023-04-07.
[REF-18] Secure Software, Inc.. "The CLASP Application Security Process". 2005. <>.
[REF-1337] Alexander Sotirov and Mark Dowd. "Bypassing Browser Memory Protections: Setting back browser security by 10 years". Memory information leaks. 2008. <>. URL validated: 2023-04-26.
[REF-1332] John Richard Moser. "Prelink and address space randomization". 2006-07-05. <>. URL validated: 2023-04-26.
[REF-1333] Dmitry Evtyushkin, Dmitry Ponomarev, Nael Abu-Ghazaleh. "Jump Over ASLR: Attacking Branch Predictors to Bypass ASLR". 2016. <>. URL validated: 2023-04-26.
[REF-1334] D3FEND. "Stack Frame Canary Validation (D3-SFCV)". 2023. <>. URL validated: 2023-04-26.
[REF-1335] D3FEND. "Segment Address Offset Randomization (D3-SAOR)". 2023. <>. URL validated: 2023-04-26.
+ Content History
+ Submissions
Submission DateSubmitterOrganization
(CWE Draft 3, 2006-07-19)
+ Modifications
Modification DateModifierOrganization
2008-07-01Eric DalciCigital
updated Potential_Mitigations, Time_of_Introduction
2008-08-01KDM Analytics
added/updated white box definitions
2008-09-08CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated Applicable_Platforms, Common_Consequences, Relationships, Other_Notes, Taxonomy_Mappings, Weakness_Ordinalities
2008-11-24CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated Common_Consequences, Other_Notes, Relationship_Notes
2009-01-12CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated Common_Consequences, Relationships
2009-10-29CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated Relationships
2010-02-16CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated References
2011-06-01CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated Common_Consequences
2012-05-11CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated Demonstrative_Examples, References, Relationships
2012-10-30CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated Demonstrative_Examples
2013-02-21CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated Demonstrative_Examples, Potential_Mitigations
2014-06-23CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated Observed_Examples
2014-07-30CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated Relationships, Taxonomy_Mappings
2017-11-08CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated Causal_Nature, Likelihood_of_Exploit, Observed_Examples, References, Relationships, Taxonomy_Mappings, White_Box_Definitions
2018-03-27CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated References
2019-01-03CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated Relationships
2020-02-24CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated Relationships
2021-03-15CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated References
2021-07-20CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated Observed_Examples
2023-04-27CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated Detection_Factors, Potential_Mitigations, References, Relationships, Time_of_Introduction
2023-06-29CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated Mapping_Notes
Page Last Updated: June 29, 2023