CWE

Common Weakness Enumeration

A Community-Developed List of Software & Hardware Weakness Types

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ID

CWE-761: Free of Pointer not at Start of Buffer

Weakness ID: 761
Abstraction: Variant
Structure: Simple
Status: Incomplete
Presentation Filter:
+ Description
The application calls free() on a pointer to a memory resource that was allocated on the heap, but the pointer is not at the start of the buffer.
+ Extended Description

This can cause the application to crash, or in some cases, modify critical program variables or execute code.

This weakness often occurs when the memory is allocated explicitly on the heap with one of the malloc() family functions and free() is called, but pointer arithmetic has caused the pointer to be in the interior or end of the buffer.

+ 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)
NatureTypeIDName
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.763Release of Invalid Pointer or Reference
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 "CISQ Data Protection Measures" (CWE-1340)
NatureTypeIDName
ChildOfClassClass - a weakness that is described in a very abstract fashion, typically independent of any specific language or technology. More specific than a Pillar Weakness, but more general than a Base Weakness. Class level weaknesses typically describe issues in terms of 1 or 2 of the following dimensions: behavior, property, and resource.404Improper Resource Shutdown or Release
+ 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.
PhaseNote
Implementation
+ 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.
ScopeImpactLikelihood
Integrity
Availability
Confidentiality

Technical Impact: Modify Memory; DoS: Crash, Exit, or Restart; Execute Unauthorized Code or Commands

+ Demonstrative Examples

Example 1

In this example, the programmer dynamically allocates a buffer to hold a string and then searches for a specific character. After completing the search, the programmer attempts to release the allocated memory and return SUCCESS or FAILURE to the caller. Note: for simplification, this example uses a hard-coded "Search Me!" string and a constant string length of 20.

(bad code)
Example Language:
#define SUCCESS (1)
#define FAILURE (0)

int contains_char(char c){
char *str;
str = (char*)malloc(20*sizeof(char));
strcpy(str, "Search Me!");
while( *str != NULL){
if( *str == c ){

/* matched char, free string and return success */
free(str);
return SUCCESS;
}
/* didn't match yet, increment pointer and try next char */

str = str + 1;
}
/* we did not match the char in the string, free mem and return failure */

free(str);
return FAILURE;
}

However, if the character is not at the beginning of the string, or if it is not in the string at all, then the pointer will not be at the start of the buffer when the programmer frees it.

Instead of freeing the pointer in the middle of the buffer, the programmer can use an indexing pointer to step through the memory or abstract the memory calculations by using array indexing.

(good code)
Example Language:
#define SUCCESS (1)
#define FAILURE (0)

int cointains_char(char c){
char *str;
int i = 0;
str = (char*)malloc(20*sizeof(char));
strcpy(str, "Search Me!");
while( i < strlen(str) ){
if( str[i] == c ){

/* matched char, free string and return success */
free(str);
return SUCCESS;
}
/* didn't match yet, increment pointer and try next char */

i = i + 1;
}
/* we did not match the char in the string, free mem and return failure */

free(str);
return FAILURE;
}

Example 2

This code attempts to tokenize a string and place it into an array using the strsep function, which inserts a \0 byte in place of whitespace or a tab character. After finishing the loop, each string in the AP array points to a location within the input string.

(bad code)
Example Language:
char **ap, *argv[10], *inputstring;
for (ap = argv; (*ap = strsep(&inputstring, " \t")) != NULL;)
if (**ap != '\0')
if (++ap >= &argv[10])
break;

/.../
free(ap[4]);

Since strsep is not allocating any new memory, freeing an element in the middle of the array is equivalent to free a pointer in the middle of inputstring.

Example 3

Consider the following code in the context of a parsing application to extract commands out of user data. The intent is to parse each command and add it to a queue of commands to be executed, discarding each malformed entry.

(bad code)
Example Language:

//hardcode input length for simplicity
char* input = (char*) malloc(40*sizeof(char));
char *tok;
char* sep = " \t";

get_user_input( input );

/* The following loop will parse and process each token in the input string */

tok = strtok( input, sep);
while( NULL != tok ){
if( isMalformed( tok ) ){

/* ignore and discard bad data */
free( tok );
}
else{
add_to_command_queue( tok );
}
tok = strtok( NULL, sep));
}

While the above code attempts to free memory associated with bad commands, since the memory was all allocated in one chunk, it must all be freed together.

One way to fix this problem would be to copy the commands into a new memory location before placing them in the queue. Then, after all commands have been processed, the memory can safely be freed.

(good code)
Example Language:

//hardcode input length for simplicity
char* input = (char*) malloc(40*sizeof(char));
char *tok, *command;
char* sep = " \t";

get_user_input( input );

/* The following loop will parse and process each token in the input string */

tok = strtok( input, sep);
while( NULL != tok ){
if( !isMalformed( command ) ){

/* copy and enqueue good data */
command = (char*) malloc( (strlen(tok) + 1) * sizeof(char) );
strcpy( command, tok );
add_to_command_queue( command );
}
tok = strtok( NULL, sep));
}

free( input )
+ Observed Examples
ReferenceDescription
function "internally calls 'calloc' and returns a pointer at an index... inside the allocated buffer. This led to freeing invalid memory."
+ Potential Mitigations

Phase: Implementation

When utilizing pointer arithmetic to traverse a buffer, use a separate variable to track progress through memory and preserve the originally allocated address for later freeing.

Phase: Implementation

When programming in C++, consider using smart pointers provided by the boost library to help correctly and consistently manage memory.

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
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.
NatureTypeIDName
MemberOfCategoryCategory - a CWE entry that contains a set of other entries that share a common characteristic.969SFP Secondary Cluster: Faulty Memory Release
+ Notes

Maintenance

Currently, CWE-763 is the parent, however it may be desirable to have an intermediate parent which is not function-specific, similar to how CWE-762 is an intermediate parent between CWE-763 and CWE-590.
+ Taxonomy Mappings
Mapped Taxonomy NameNode IDFitMapped Node Name
Software Fault PatternsSFP12Faulty Memory Release
+ References
[REF-657] "boost C++ Library Smart Pointers". <http://www.boost.org/doc/libs/1_38_0/libs/smart_ptr/smart_ptr.htm>.
[REF-480] "Valgrind". <http://valgrind.org/>.
+ Content History
+ Submissions
Submission DateSubmitterOrganization
2009-05-08CWE Content TeamMITRE
+ Modifications
Modification DateModifierOrganization
2010-09-27CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated Relationships
2011-06-01CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated Common_Consequences
2012-05-11CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated Demonstrative_Examples, 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
2020-02-24CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated Relationships
2020-12-10CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated Relationships
2021-03-15CWE Content TeamMITRE
updated Observed_Examples
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Page Last Updated: July 20, 2021