Fearless Security: Memory Safety

Fearless Security

This past year, Mozilla shipped Quantum CSS within Firefox, which was the culmination associated with 8 years of investment in Corrosion, a memory-safe systems programming vocabulary, and over a year of spinning a major browser component in Corrosion. Until now, all major browser motors have been written in C++, mainly for performance reasons. However , along with great performance comes great (memory) responsibility: C++ programmers have to by hand manage memory, which opens the Pandora’ s box of vulnerabilities. Rust not only prevents these kinds of mistakes, but the techniques it uses to do so furthermore prevent data races , enabling programmers to reason more effectively regarding parallel code.

With excellent performance comes great memory responsibility

In the arriving weeks, this three-part series may examine memory safety and line safety, and close with an example of the potential security benefits obtained from rewriting Firefox’ s CSS engine in Rust.

What Is Memory Safety

When we talk about building secure apps, we often focus on memory safety. In private, this means that in all possible executions of the program, there is no access to invalid memory space. Violations include:

  • use after free
  • null pointer dereference
  • using uninitialized memory
  • double free
  • barrier overflow

For the more formal definition, see Jordan Hicks’ What is memory safety post and The Meaning associated with Memory Safety , the paper that formalizes memory basic safety.

Memory violations such as can cause programs to crash suddenly and can be exploited to alter meant behavior. Potential consequences of a memory-related bug include information leakage, irrelavent code execution, and remote program code execution.

Managing Storage

Memory management is vital to both the performance and the protection of applications. This section will talk about the basic memory model. One important concept is ideas . A pointer is an adjustable that stores a memory tackle. If we visit that memory tackle, there will be some data there, and we say that the pointer is a mention of the (or points to) that information. Just like a home address shows individuals where to find you, a memory deal with shows a program where to find data.

Everything in a program is situated at a particular memory address, which includes code instructions. Pointer misuse may cause serious security vulnerabilities, including details leakage and arbitrary code delivery.


When we create a variable, the program must allocate enough space in storage to store the data for that adjustable. Since the memory owned by every process is finite, we likewise require some way of reclaiming resources (or freeing them). When memory is liberated, it becomes available to store new information, but the old data can still can be found until it is overwritten.


A buffer is really a contiguous area of memory that shops multiple instances of the same data kind. For example , the phrase “ The cat is Batman” would be kept in a 16-byte buffer. Buffers are usually defined by a starting memory deal with and a length; because the data kept in memory next to a buffer might be unrelated, it’ s important to make certain we don’ t read or even write past the buffer boundaries.

Control Flow

Programs are composed of subroutines, that are executed in a particular order. In late a subroutine, the computer jumps to some stored pointer (called the return address ) to the next part of code that should be carried out. When we jump to the return tackle, one of three things happens:

  1. The process continues not surprisingly (the return address was not corrupted).
  2. The process crashes (the return address was altered in order to point at non-executable memory).
  3. The process continues, but not surprisingly (the return address was changed and control flow changed).

How languages attain memory safety

We regularly think of programming languages on a spectrum . On a single end, languages like C/C++ are usually efficient, but require manual memory space management; on the other, interpreted dialects use automatic memory management (such reference counting or garbage selection [GC]), but pay out the price in performance. Even different languages with highly optimized garbage enthusiasts can’ t match the performance of non-GC’ d languages.


A few languages (like C) require developers to manually manage memory simply by specifying when to allocate assets, how much to allocate, and when in order to free the resources. This gives the particular programmer very fine-grained control over just how their implementation uses resources, allowing fast and efficient code. Nevertheless , this approach is prone to mistakes, especially in complex codebases.

Mistakes that are easy to make consist of:

  • forgetting that will resources have been freed and wanting to use them
  • not allocating enough space to store information
  • reading past the border of a buffer

Shake hands with danger!
A safety video applicant for manual memory management

Smart pointers

A smart pointer is really a pointer with additional information to help avoid memory mismanagement. These can be used meant for automated memory management and range checking. Unlike raw pointers, a good pointer is able to self-destruct, instead of awaiting the programmer to manually damage it.

There’ ersus no single smart pointer type— a good pointer is any type that wraps a raw pointer in some useful abstraction. Some smart pointers make use of reference counting to count how many factors are using the data owned by an adjustable, while others implement a scoping plan to constrain a pointer life time to a particular scope.

In reference counting, the object’ s resources are reclaimed once the last reference to the object is ruined. Basic reference counting implementations may suffer from performance and space over head, and can be difficult to use in multi-threaded environments. Situations where objects make reference to each other (cyclical references) can stop either object’ s reference depend from ever reaching zero, which usually requires more sophisticated methods.

Garbage Collection

Some languages (like Java, Move, Python) are garbage collected . A part of the runtime environment, called the garbage collector (GC), remnants variables to determine what resources are usually reachable in a graph that signifies references between objects. Once a subject is no longer reachable, its resources aren’t needed and the GC reclaims the actual memory to reuse in the future. Most of allocations and deallocations occur without having explicit programmer instruction.

While a GC ensures that storage is always used validly, it doesn’ t reclaim memory in the most effective way. The last time an object is utilized could occur much earlier than if it is freed by the GC. Garbage selection has a performance overhead that can be beyond reach for performance critical applications; it needs up to 5x as much memory to prevent a runtime performance penalty.


To obtain both performance and memory basic safety, Rust uses a concept called possession. More formally, the ownership design is an example of an affine type system . All Rust code follows particular ownership rules that allow the compiler to manage memory without incurring runtime costs:

  1. Every value has a variable, called the proprietor.
  2. There can only end up being one owner at a time.
  3. When the owner goes out of range, the value will be dropped.

Values can be moved or even borrowed between variables. These guidelines are enforced by a part of the compiler called the borrow checker.

When a variable goes out of range, Rust frees that memory. Within the following example, when s1 and s2 walk out scope, they would both try to totally free the same memory, resulting in a double free of charge error. To prevent this, when a worth is moved out of an adjustable, the previous owner becomes invalid. When the programmer then attempts to use the particular invalid variable, the compiler can reject the code. This can be prevented by creating a deep copy from the data or by using references.

Example one : Moving ownership

 let s1 sama dengan String:: from("hello");
let s2 sama dengan s1;

//won't compile because s1 is now invalid
println! (" , world! ", s1);

Another set of rules validated by the borrow checker pertains to adjustable lifetimes. Rust prohibits the use of uninitialized variables and dangling pointers, which could cause a program to reference unintentional data. If the code in the instance below compiled, ur would reference memory space that is deallocated when x goes out associated with scope— a dangling pointer. The particular compiler tracks scopes to ensure that almost all borrows are valid, occasionally needing the programmer to explicitly annotate variable lifetimes.

Example 2 : The dangling pointer

 let r;
  let x = 5;
  r = &x;

println! ("r:  ", r);

The ownership design provides a strong foundation for making certain memory is accessed appropriately, avoiding undefined behavior.

Storage Vulnerabilities

The main effects of memory vulnerabilities include:

  1. Crash: memory errors can cause a pc to try to access
  2. Information leakage: unintentionally exposing non-public data, including delicate information like passwords
  3. Arbitrary code execution (ACE): allows an opponent to execute arbitrary commands on the target machine; when this is achievable over a network, we call it a web-based code execution (RCE)

Another type of problem that can show up is storage leakage , which occurs whenever memory is allocated, but not launched after the program is finished using it. It’ s possible to use up all accessible memory this way. Without any remaining storage, legitimate resource requests will be obstructed, causing a denial of company. This is a memory-related problem, but one which can’ t be addressed simply by programming languages.

The very best case scenario with most storage errors is that an application will accident harmlessly— this isn’ t a great best case. However , the worst thing would be is that an attacker can obtain control of the program through the vulnerability (which could lead to further attacks).

Misusing Free (use-after-free, double free)

This subclass associated with vulnerabilities occurs when some source has been freed , but its memory position is still referenced. It’ s a powerful exploitation method that can lead to out of bounds gain access to, information leakage, code execution plus more .

Garbage-collected and reference-counted languages prevent the use of invalid tips by only destroying unreachable items (which can have a performance penalty), whilst manually managed languages are especially susceptible to invalid pointer use (particularly in complex codebases). Rust’ ersus borrow checker doesn’ t enable object destruction as long as references towards the object exist, which means bugs such as are prevented at compile period.

Uninitialized variables

If a variable is used just before initialization, the data it contains could be anything— including random garbage or formerly discarded data, resulting in information seapage (these are sometimes called wild pointers ). Frequently , memory managed languages use an arrears initialization routine that is run after share to prevent these problems.

Like C, most variables within Rust are uninitialized until assignment— unlike C, you can’ capital t read them prior to initialization. The next code will fail to compile:

Example three or more : Using an uninitialized variable

  fn main() 
    let x: i32;
    println!("  ", x);


Null pointers

When an software dereferences a pointer that happens to be null, usually this means that it basically accesses garbage that will cause an accident. In some cases, these vulnerabilities can lead to irrelavent code execution 1 2 3 . Corrosion has two types of pointers, references and uncooked pointers . References are safe to gain access to, while raw pointers could be challenging.

Rust prevents null pointer dereferencing two ways:

  1. Avoiding nullable pointers
  2. Avoiding raw pointer dereferencing

Rust eliminates nullable pointers by replacing these a special Option type . In order to manipulate the possibly-null worth inside of an Choice , the language requires the developer to explicitly handle the null case or the program will not put together.

When we can’ to avoid nullable pointers (for illustration, when interacting with non-Rust code), so what can we do? Try to isolate destruction. Any dereferencing raw pointers should occur in an unsafe block. This particular keyword relaxes Rust’ s guarantees to allow some operations that could result in undefined behavior (like dereferencing the raw pointer).

Everything the particular borrow checker touches... what about that will shadowy place? That's an unsafe prevent. You must never go there Simba. inch width=

Buffer overflow

While the other vulnerabilities discussed listed below are prevented by methods that limit access to undefined memory, a barrier overflow may access legally allotted memory. The problem is that a buffer flood inappropriately accesses legally allocated memory space. Like an use-after-free bug, out-of-bounds entry can also be problematic because it accesses separated memory that hasn’ t already been reallocated yet, and hence still consists of sensitive information that’ s designed to not exist anymore.

A buffer overflow simply means a good out-of-bounds access. Due to how buffers are stored in memory, they often result in information leakage, which could include delicate data such as passwords. More severe situations can allow ACE/RCE vulnerabilities by overwriting the instruction pointer.

Example 4: Buffer overflow (C code)

  int main() 
  int buf []  = 0, 1, 2, 3, 4;
  // print out of bounds
  printf("Out of bounds: %dn", buf [10] );
  // write out of bounds
  buf [10]  = 10;
  printf("Out of bounds: %dn", buf [10] );
  return 0;


The simplest defense against the buffer overflow is to always need a bounds check when accessing components, but this adds a runtime performance charges .

How does Corrosion handle this? The built-in barrier types in Rust’ s regular library require a bounds check for any kind of random access, but also provide iterator APIs that can reduce the impact of such bounds checks over multiple continuous accesses. These choices ensure that out-of-bounds reads and writes are extremely hard for these types. Rust promotes designs that lead to bounds checks just occurring in those places in which a programmer would almost certainly have to personally place them in C/C++.

Memory safety is only fifty percent the battle

Memory space safety violations open programs in order to security vulnerabilities like unintentional information leakage and remote code delivery. There are various ways to ensure memory basic safety, including smart pointers and rubbish collection. You can even formally prove memory safety . While some languages have accepted sluggish performance as a tradeoff for storage safety, Rust’ s ownership program achieves both memory safety plus minimizes the performance costs.

Unfortunately, memory errors are just part of the story when we talk about creating secure code. The next post in this particular series will discuss concurrency assaults and thread safety.

Exploiting Memory: In-depth resources

Heap memory space and exploitation
Smashing the stack to keep things interesting and profit
Analogies of Information Security
Intro to make use of after free vulnerabilities

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