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TUCoPS :: General Information :: intovf.txt

Integer Manipulation Attacks

An Overlooked Construct and an Integer Overflow Redux

Michael Howard
Secure Windows Initiative

September 19, 2003

Summary: Michael Howard investigates an often-ignored code construct
that can lead to serious buffer overruns, and then looks an alternate
way to perform arithmetic without overflow side effects. (7 printed

A Look at Constructs

It's funny how many security guidance documents warn people about
dangerous functions. In C and C++, there are very few dangerous
functions, but one thing I can say for sure is that there are plenty of
dangerous developers using C and C++.

So, you're probably asking, "Michael, what on earth are you talking

I have to admit I'm tired of seeing documents that say certain functions
are dangerous and you should replace them with safer versions. For
example, "Don't use strcpy, it's evil. You should use strncpy instead,
because it's safe." Nothing could be further from the truth. It's
possible to have safe code that uses strcpy, and unsafe calls to

Functions like strcpy are potentially dangerous because the source data
is larger than the destination buffer and it came from an untrusted
source. If the source data comes from a trusted source or is tested for
validity before being copied, then the call to strcpy is safe:

void func(char *p) {
   const int MAX = 10;
   char buf[MAX + 1];

   if (p && strlen(p) <= MAX) 

Believe it or not, I'm going somewhere with this example. There's an
often-overlooked construct that can lead to buffer overruns, and it's
not a function call. It's this:

while (<some condition>) 
   *d++ = *s++;

No function call here-this is the coding construct in DCOM that led to
the Blaster worm. You can read more about the bug fix in Buffer Overrun
In RPC Interface Could Allow Code Execution.

The code looked like this:

HRESULT GetMachineName(WCHAR *pwszPath) {
    WCHAR  wszMachineName[N + 1]) 
    LPWSTR pwszServerName = wszMachineName;
    while (*pwszPath != L'\\' )
        *pwszServerName++ = *pwszPath++;   

The problem here is that the while loop is bounded by some character in
the source string. It is not restricted by the size of the destination
buffer. In other words, it's ripe for a buffer overrun if the source
data is untrusted.

I wrote a simple Perl script to search for these kinds of constructs in
C and C++ code. Be aware that every instance flagged by this script is
not a bug and you need to determine if the source data is trusted or

use strict;
use File::Find;

my $RECURSE = 1;

foreach(@ARGV) {
  next if /^-./;
  if ($RECURSE) {
  } else {
sub processFile {
  my $FILE;
  my $filename = $_;
  if (!$RECURSE && ($File::Find::topdir ne $File::Find::dir)) {
    $File::Find::prune = 1;
  # Only accept C/C++ and header extensions
  return if (!(/\.[ch](?:pp|xx)?$/i));
  warn "$!\n" unless open FILE, "<" . $filename;
  # reset line number
  $. = 0;

  while (<FILE>) {

  if (/\*\w+\+\+\s{0,}=\s{0,}\*\w+\+\+) {
   print $filename . " " . $_ . "\n";

    Note   This script only finds the *p++ construct, and not the *++p construct. 

Assuming you find a bug, one way to make the code more secure is to
limit the copied data to be no larger than the destination:

HRESULT GetMachineName(WCHAR *pwszPath) {
    WCHAR  wszMachineName[N + 1]) 
    LPWSTR pwszServerName = wszMachineName;

    size_t cbMachineName = N;
    while (*pwszPath != L'\\' && --cbMachineName)
        *pwszServerName++ = *pwszPath++;   

Finally, any memory copy function or construct that is not constrained
by the size of the destination should be heavily scrutinized.

A Little More about Integer Overflows

In a previous article, Reviewing Code for Integer Manipulation
Vulnerabilities, I discussed security defects associated with simple
mathematical operations called integer overflows.

I recently gave a lecture to Microsoft engineers as part of the ongoing
Trustworthy Computing Engineering Series about integer overflows. In the
talk, I outlined how to find them and how to fix them. I was amazed at
the number of e-mails I received saying my remedy was okay, but was
fraught with danger. Allow me to explain.

In the column, I stated that code like this:

if (A + B > MAX) return -1;

Should be changed to this:

if (A + B >= A && A + B < MAX) {
   // cool!

Someone pointed out that three years from now, someone will look at this
code, wonder what it's for, and remove the A+B >= A portion because it
seems redundant, and now you have an integer overflow regression. Oops!

In response, I wrote the following header file, which is a little more
obvious in its intent. Yes, it looks like gibberish, but that gibberish
is x86 assembly language. I used assembly language because it gave me
direct access to the jc operand, which is jump-on-carry. In other words,
it detects if the math operation that led to an overflow.


#ifdef _X86_

inline bool UAdd(size_t a, size_t b, size_t *r) {

   __asm {
      mov         eax,dword ptr [a] 
      add         eax,dword ptr [b] 
      mov         ecx,dword ptr [r] 
      mov         dword ptr [ecx],eax 
      jc         short j1
      mov         al,1 
      jmp         short j2

#ifdef _DEBUG
      int         3
      xor         al,al

inline bool UMul(size_t a, size_t b, size_t *r) {

   __asm {
      mov         eax,dword ptr [a] 
      mul         dword ptr [b] 
      mov         ecx,dword ptr [r] 
      mov         dword ptr [ecx],eax 
      jc         short j1
      mov         al,1 
      jmp         short j2

#ifdef _DEBUG
      int         3
      xor         al,al

inline bool UMulAdd(size_t mul1, size_t mul2, size_t add, size_t *r) {

   size_t t = 0;
   if (UMul(mul1,mul2,&t))
      return UAdd(t,add,r);
   return false;

#   error "This code compiles only on 32-bit x86
#endif // _X86_


View this file, which includes simple documentation explaining the functions.
Spot the Security Flaw

It took a while, but a number of people found the defect. Comparing
strings, when used to make security decisions, should be culture
invariant or be a byte-wise comparison. In the example, I painted the
code that would have allowed access to sensitive data in Turkey, because
the Turkish language has four instances of the letter "I"-two lowercase
and two uppercase. You can read about it at

Now let's move on to this month's error. What's up with this code?

void func(char *p) {
   char buf[10+1];
   // limit string to 10 chars
   printf("Hello, %s\n",buf);

A Little Puzzle

This puzzle has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with security, but I
dragged this up from the depths of my memory when I thought about people
being confused by the integer overflow detection code. What does this
code do?

int a = 0x42;
int b = 0x69;

a ^= b;
b ^= a;
a ^= b;

The rules of this game are simple-you cannot compile or interpret this
code. Try to determine what it does simply by looking at it.

Michael Howard is a Senior Security Program Manager in the Secure
Windows Initiative group at Microsoft and is the coauthor of Writing
Secure Code, now in its second edition, and the main author of Designing
Secure Web-based Applications for Windows 2000. His main focus in life
is making sure people design, build, test, and document nothing short of
a secure system. His favorite line is "One person's feature is another's

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