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12.4 Buffer Overruns and Subscript Errors

Buffer overruns and subscript errors are the most common dangerous errors in C programs. They result in undefined behavior because storing outside an array typically modifies storage that is used by some other object, and most modern systems lack runtime checks to catch these errors. Programs should not rely on buffer overruns being caught.

There is one exception to the usual rule that a portable program cannot address outside an array. In C, it is valid to compute the address just past an object, e.g., &a[N] where a has N elements, so long as you do not dereference the resulting pointer. But it is not valid to compute the address just before an object, e.g., &a[-1]; nor is it valid to compute two past the end, e.g., &a[N+1]. On most platforms &a[-1] < &a[0] && &a[N] < &a[N+1], but this is not reliable in general, and it is usually easy enough to avoid the potential portability problem, e.g., by allocating an extra unused array element at the start or end.

Valgrind can catch many overruns. GCC users might also consider using the -fmudflap option to catch overruns.

Buffer overruns are usually caused by off-by-one errors, but there are more subtle ways to get them.

Using int values to index into an array or compute array sizes causes problems on typical 64-bit hosts where an array index might be 2^31 or larger. Index values of type size_t avoid this problem, but cannot be negative. Index values of type ptrdiff_t are signed, and are wide enough in practice.

If you add or multiply two numbers to calculate an array size, e.g., malloc (x * sizeof y + z), havoc ensues if the addition or multiplication overflows.

Many implementations of the alloca function silently misbehave and can generate buffer overflows if given sizes that are too large. The size limits are implementation dependent, but are at least 4000 bytes on all platforms that we know about.

The standard functions asctime, asctime_r, ctime, ctime_r, and gets are prone to buffer overflows, and portable code should not use them unless the inputs are known to be within certain limits. The time-related functions can overflow their buffers if given timestamps out of range (e.g., a year less than -999 or greater than 9999). Time-related buffer overflows cannot happen with recent-enough versions of the GNU C library, but are possible with other implementations. The gets function is the worst, since it almost invariably overflows its buffer when presented with an input line larger than the buffer.