Heap-based Buffer Overflow

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().


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, heap-based buffer overflows:

#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 Two

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

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.

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.

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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