Unchecked Return Value

The software does not check the return value from a method or function, which can prevent it from detecting unexpected states and conditions.


Description

Two common programmer assumptions are "this function call can never fail" and "it doesn't matter if this function call fails". If an attacker can force the function to fail or otherwise return a value that is not expected, then the subsequent program logic could lead to a vulnerability, because the software is not in a state that the programmer assumes. For example, if the program calls a function to drop privileges but does not check the return code to ensure that privileges were successfully dropped, then the program will continue to operate with the higher privileges.

Background

Many functions will return some value about the success of their actions. This will alert the program whether or not to handle any errors caused by that function.

Demonstrations

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

Consider the following code segment:

char buf[10], cp_buf[10];
fgets(buf, 10, stdin);
strcpy(cp_buf, buf);

The programmer expects that when fgets() returns, buf will contain a null-terminated string of length 9 or less. But if an I/O error occurs, fgets() will not null-terminate buf. Furthermore, if the end of the file is reached before any characters are read, fgets() returns without writing anything to buf. In both of these situations, fgets() signals that something unusual has happened by returning NULL, but in this code, the warning will not be noticed. The lack of a null terminator in buf can result in a buffer overflow in the subsequent call to strcpy().

Example Two

In the following example, it is possible to request that memcpy move a much larger segment of memory than assumed:

int returnChunkSize(void *) {


  /* if chunk info is valid, return the size of usable memory,

  * else, return -1 to indicate an error

  */
  ...

}
int main() {
  ...
  memcpy(destBuf, srcBuf, (returnChunkSize(destBuf)-1));
  ...
}

If returnChunkSize() happens to encounter an error it will return -1. Notice that the return value is not checked before the memcpy operation (CWE-252), so -1 can be passed as the size argument to memcpy() (CWE-805). Because memcpy() assumes that the value is unsigned, it will be interpreted as MAXINT-1 (CWE-195), and therefore will copy far more memory than is likely available to the destination buffer (CWE-787, CWE-788).

Example Three

The following code does not check to see if memory allocation succeeded before attempting to use the pointer returned by malloc().

buf = (char*) malloc(req_size);
strncpy(buf, xfer, req_size);

The traditional defense of this coding error is: "If my program runs out of memory, it will fail. It doesn't matter whether I handle the error or simply allow the program to die with a segmentation fault when it tries to dereference the null pointer." This argument ignores three important considerations:

Depending upon the type and size of the application, it may be possible to free memory that is being used elsewhere so that execution can continue.

It is impossible for the program to perform a graceful exit if required. If the program is performing an atomic operation, it can leave the system in an inconsistent state.

The programmer has lost the opportunity to record diagnostic information. Did the call to malloc() fail because req_size was too large or because there were too many requests being handled at the same time? Or was it caused by a memory leak that has built up over time? Without handling the error, there is no way to know.

Example Four

The following examples read a file into a byte array.

char[] byteArray = new char[1024];
for (IEnumerator i=users.GetEnumerator(); i.MoveNext() ;i.Current()) {
  String userName = (String) i.Current();
  String pFileName = PFILE_ROOT + "/" + userName;
  StreamReader sr = new StreamReader(pFileName);
  sr.Read(byteArray,0,1024);//the file is always 1k bytes
  sr.Close();
  processPFile(userName, byteArray);
}
FileInputStream fis;
byte[] byteArray = new byte[1024];
for (Iterator i=users.iterator(); i.hasNext();) {

  String userName = (String) i.next();
  String pFileName = PFILE_ROOT + "/" + userName;
  FileInputStream fis = new FileInputStream(pFileName);
  fis.read(byteArray); // the file is always 1k bytes
  fis.close();
  processPFile(userName, byteArray);

The code loops through a set of users, reading a private data file for each user. The programmer assumes that the files are always 1 kilobyte in size and therefore ignores the return value from Read(). If an attacker can create a smaller file, the program will recycle the remainder of the data from the previous user and treat it as though it belongs to the attacker.

Example Five

The following code does not check to see if the string returned by getParameter() is null before calling the member function compareTo(), potentially causing a NULL dereference.

String itemName = request.getParameter(ITEM_NAME);
if (itemName.compareTo(IMPORTANT_ITEM)) {
  ...
}
...

The following code does not check to see if the string returned by theItem property is null before calling the member function Equals(), potentially causing a NULL dereference. string itemName = request.Item(ITEM_NAME);

if (itemName.Equals(IMPORTANT_ITEM)) {
  ...
}
...

The traditional defense of this coding error is: "I know the requested value will always exist because.... If it does not exist, the program cannot perform the desired behavior so it doesn't matter whether I handle the error or simply allow the program to die dereferencing a null value." But attackers are skilled at finding unexpected paths through programs, particularly when exceptions are involved.

Example Six

The following code shows a system property that is set to null and later dereferenced by a programmer who mistakenly assumes it will always be defined.

System.clearProperty("os.name");
...
String os = System.getProperty("os.name");
if (os.equalsIgnoreCase("Windows 95")) System.out.println("Not supported");

The traditional defense of this coding error is: "I know the requested value will always exist because.... If it does not exist, the program cannot perform the desired behavior so it doesn't matter whether I handle the error or simply allow the program to die dereferencing a null value." But attackers are skilled at finding unexpected paths through programs, particularly when exceptions are involved.

Example Seven

The following VB.NET code does not check to make sure that it has read 50 bytes from myfile.txt. This can cause DoDangerousOperation() to operate on an unexpected value.

Dim MyFile As New FileStream("myfile.txt", FileMode.Open, FileAccess.Read, FileShare.Read)
Dim MyArray(50) As Byte
MyFile.Read(MyArray, 0, 50)
DoDangerousOperation(MyArray(20))

In .NET, it is not uncommon for programmers to misunderstand Read() and related methods that are part of many System.IO classes. The stream and reader classes do not consider it to be unusual or exceptional if only a small amount of data becomes available. These classes simply add the small amount of data to the return buffer, and set the return value to the number of bytes or characters read. There is no guarantee that the amount of data returned is equal to the amount of data requested.

Example Eight

It is not uncommon for Java programmers to misunderstand read() and related methods that are part of many java.io classes. Most errors and unusual events in Java result in an exception being thrown. But the stream and reader classes do not consider it unusual or exceptional if only a small amount of data becomes available. These classes simply add the small amount of data to the return buffer, and set the return value to the number of bytes or characters read. There is no guarantee that the amount of data returned is equal to the amount of data requested. This behavior makes it important for programmers to examine the return value from read() and other IO methods to ensure that they receive the amount of data they expect.

Example Nine

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 */

  validate_addr_form(user_supplied_addr);
  addr = inet_addr(user_supplied_addr);
  hp = gethostbyaddr( addr, sizeof(struct in_addr), AF_INET);
  strcpy(hostname, hp->h_name);

}

If an attacker provides an address that appears to be well-formed, but the address does not resolve to a hostname, then the call to gethostbyaddr() will return NULL. When this occurs, a NULL pointer dereference (CWE-476) will occur in the call to strcpy().

Note that this example is also vulnerable to a buffer overflow (see CWE-119).

Example Ten

The following function attempts to acquire a lock in order to perform operations on a shared resource.

void f(pthread_mutex_t *mutex) {

  pthread_mutex_lock(mutex);

  /* access shared resource */


  pthread_mutex_unlock(mutex);

}

However, the code does not check the value returned by pthread_mutex_lock() for errors. If pthread_mutex_lock() cannot acquire the mutex for any reason the function may introduce a race condition into the program and result in undefined behavior.

In order to avoid data races correctly written programs must check the result of thread synchronization functions and appropriately handle all errors, either by attempting to recover from them or reporting them to higher levels.

int f(pthread_mutex_t *mutex) {

  int result;

  result = pthread_mutex_lock(mutex);
  if (0 != result)
    return result;


  /* access shared resource */


  return pthread_mutex_unlock(mutex);

}

See Also

CISQ Quality Measures - Security

Weaknesses in this category are related to the CISQ Quality Measures for Security. Presence of these weaknesses could reduce the security of the software.

CISQ Quality Measures - Reliability

Weaknesses in this category are related to the CISQ Quality Measures for Reliability. Presence of these weaknesses could reduce the reliability of the software.

SEI CERT C Coding Standard - Guidelines 50. POSIX (POS)

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

Comprehensive CWE Dictionary

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

CWE Cross-section

This view contains a selection of weaknesses that represent the variety of weaknesses that are captured in CWE, at a level of abstraction that is likely to be useful t...

Weaknesses Introduced During Implementation

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


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