Stack-based Buffer Overflow

A stack-based buffer overflow condition is a condition where the buffer being overwritten is allocated on the stack (i.e., is a local variable or, rarely, a parameter to a function).


There are generally several security-critical data on an execution stack that can lead to arbitrary code execution. The most prominent is the stored return address, the memory address at which execution should continue once the current function is finished executing. The attacker can overwrite this value with some memory address to which the attacker also has write access, into which they place arbitrary code to be run with the full privileges of the vulnerable program. Alternately, the attacker can supply the address of an important call, for instance the POSIX system() call, leaving arguments to the call on the stack. This is often called a return into libc exploit, since the attacker generally forces the program to jump at return time into an interesting routine in the C standard library (libc). Other important data commonly on the stack include the stack pointer and frame pointer, two values that indicate offsets for computing memory addresses. Modifying those values can often be leveraged into a "write-what-where" condition.


The following examples help to illustrate the nature of this weakness and describe methods or techniques which can be used to mitigate the risk.

Note that the examples here are by no means exhaustive and any given weakness may have many subtle varieties, each of which may require different detection methods or runtime controls.

Example One

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

#define BUFSIZE 256
int main(int argc, char **argv) {
  char buf[BUFSIZE];
  strcpy(buf, argv[1]);

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

Example Two

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.

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);


This function allocates a buffer of 64 bytes to store the hostname, however there is no guarantee that the hostname will not be larger than 64 bytes. If an attacker specifies an address which resolves to a very large hostname, then we may overwrite sensitive data or even relinquish control flow to the attacker.

Note that this example also contains an unchecked return value (CWE-252) that can lead to a NULL pointer dereference (CWE-476).

See Also

SEI CERT C Coding Standard - Guidelines 07. Characters and Strings (STR)

Weaknesses in this category are related to the rules and recommendations in the Characters and Strings (STR) section of the SEI CERT C Coding Standard.

SEI CERT C Coding Standard - Guidelines 06. Arrays (ARR)

Weaknesses in this category are related to the rules and recommendations in the Arrays (ARR) section of the SEI CERT C Coding Standard.

SFP Secondary Cluster: Faulty Buffer Access

This category identifies Software Fault Patterns (SFPs) within the Faulty Buffer Access cluster (SFP8).

Comprehensive CWE Dictionary

This view (slice) covers all the elements in CWE.

Weaknesses Introduced During Implementation

This view (slice) lists weaknesses that can be introduced during implementation.

Weaknesses Introduced During Design

This view (slice) lists weaknesses that can be introduced during design.

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