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Most Dangerous Programming Errors, 20-16

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I continue the look at 5 more of the Top 25 Most Dangerous Programming Errors. Here's part 1 (25-21)

20. Download of Code Without Integrity Check

You might not think of this at first, but it's a doozy. If you are downloading things, like files, code, updates, whatever, they could be compromised. DNS poisoning or redirects could make your request for a file go to a different location. There could be a man in the middle messing with your data, or the download could just be corrupt.

Regardless, if anything happens along the way, it could wreak havoc on your running application.

Ways around it

The obvious way around this is checking the integrity of downloaded packages with a SHA1 or other secure hash algorithm. The non-obvious extra protection is doing proper DNS checks (forward and reverse) on your network requests (as per the CWE prevention techniques). A third way (again, by the CWE), is to actually encrypt (using an encryption algorithm like AES) your downloaded content.

Doing all three is not that much work when you think about it. Checking a hash is an extra method call and an extra if statement to confirm the hash. Doing the DNS lookups is a small method. Doing the full decryption isn't that bad either, as most encryption algorithms have nice APIs for whatever language you are working in.

The point is: don't just download stuff and execute it. It's not cool.

19. Missing Authentication for Critical Function

This one is a little more tricky. You can't just add some code in a few spots to make this happen. All of the CWE recommendations are architecture related, in that you have to think about them before you go and write a bunch of code.

Ways around it

The latter two points the CWE makes regarding mitigation are more obvious.

  1. Duplicate client side security checks on the sever side. Duh. Don't ever rely on just client side authentication. If you authenticate solely on the client side, it's sending a message to the server at some point saying that everything is all good. If the client has full control over this message, an attacker pretty much owns your system. Have fun with that.
  2. Avoid custom authentication systems. If you are using a framework that provides authentication, use it. If you can't, but the operating system provides features you can leverage, use them.

The first point they make is a little more interesting, and harder to implement. If you have a C library, for example, and you only expose so much in your header file, it doesn't really matter. There are ways to see what functions are defined and you can create your own header file to expose those functions to your program. If they don't require authentication…

Same thing with web applications. Assume you have your authentication page A, and a secure page B. If you can navigate to page B manually, and it assumes you came from A so you must be authenticated, then your application needs work.

18. Incorrect Calculation of Buffer Size

This error occurs in languages where you need to explicitly allocate a certain amount of memory. C, C++, Java, C# all require you, in certain cases, to make a decision about how much memory to allocate. Ruby arrays, as an example, can expand dynamically, as well as some types in C# and Java. Know your datatypes!

If you allocate a certain amount of memory, but then try to read more data into that block of memory than it can hold, hilarity chaos ensues.


The gets function just reads stuff into a buffer up to the newline character. What if I feed in a TON of data? FAIL!

Ways around it

All except one of the CWE recommendations for mitigating this error are in the implementation area (meaning, in the code you write).

When it comes down to it, there are a few things you need to do:

  1. Validate your input.
  2. Think about your input.
  3. Use safe functions.

If you are accepting a integer as input, and you expect it to be within a certain range, check that it is.

From the CWE example, if you are working with data you are HTML escaping, remember that things like & get converted to &, so your output buffer needs to be much larger than your input buffer.

Use safe methods that accept sizes for inputs, like fgets.


Some other things they recommend are just good practice, like examining compiler warnings. If your compiler is spitting out warnings about casting and other things, you should probably give it a look see. I prefer it when my code compiles cleanly, and cleanly is defined as without warning.

17. Integer Overflow or Wraparound

Oh integer overflow. We all know this one. You add a couple of numbers and get a horrible negative number. This is usually more of a problem in the C family of languages, but can occur in something like Java too. Just because Java is this magical compiled bytecode garbage collecting language doesn't make it immune to integer overflow. Ruby, on the other hand, seamlessly switches between normal integers and big decimals. Ruby has native support for arbitrarily large numbers, so you don't have to worry about it.

Ways around it

First steps, think about your datatypes and check your inputs. Don't accept inputs you know will cause overflows. If you have to be able to accept those inputs, use large types (long, or long long, instead of int, for example). You can double your range if you don't have to worry about negatives either; use the unsigned varieties.

The CWE also points out libraries such as SafeInt and IntegerLib for dealing with large values in a safe manner. Sometimes using a library like these is a safe an effective way out of the problem.

If you have some fancy compiler, or are working in a language that can naturally do this, ensure bounds checking warnings are enabled.

16. Information Exposure Through an Error Message

This is pretty straightforward. You shouldn't blindly throw error messages up on the screen. If something is going on the screen, you should think about it, and putting every random exception message up there isn't going to help anybody. It might even hurt.

Maybe your database user and password are in that message (for some stupid reason). Then what?


Ways around it

The simplest way would be to type check errors passed to your error display code (you have a method for displaying errors to the user right?). What I mean by that is only accept exceptions of the type UserSafeException, or something like that. Then, in the rest of your code, you can catch an exception (database error, what have you), and wrap up a new UserSafeException with a nice friendly message for the user. You can go one step further and predefine error messages the user should be able to see, and ensure your UserSafeException can only accept those.

These techniques ensure with a number of safegaurds that no user should ever see any gross error messages meant for the eyes of a programmer.

This is really caused by programmers being lazy, so just don't be lazy!