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3.2.3.8 Heap Consistency Checking

You can ask malloc to check the consistency of dynamic memory by using the mcheck function and preloading the malloc debug library libc_malloc_debug using the LD_PRELOAD environment variable. This function is a GNU extension, declared in mcheck.h.

Function: int mcheck (void (*abortfn) (enum mcheck_status status))

Preliminary: | MT-Unsafe race:mcheck const:malloc_hooks | AS-Unsafe corrupt | AC-Unsafe corrupt | See POSIX Safety Concepts.

Calling mcheck tells malloc to perform occasional consistency checks. These will catch things such as writing past the end of a block that was allocated with malloc.

The abortfn argument is the function to call when an inconsistency is found. If you supply a null pointer, then mcheck uses a default function which prints a message and calls abort (see Aborting a Program). The function you supply is called with one argument, which says what sort of inconsistency was detected; its type is described below.

It is too late to begin allocation checking once you have allocated anything with malloc. So mcheck does nothing in that case. The function returns -1 if you call it too late, and 0 otherwise (when it is successful).

The easiest way to arrange to call mcheck early enough is to use the option ‘-lmcheck’ when you link your program; then you don’t need to modify your program source at all. Alternatively you might use a debugger to insert a call to mcheck whenever the program is started, for example these gdb commands will automatically call mcheck whenever the program starts:

(gdb) break main
Breakpoint 1, main (argc=2, argv=0xbffff964) at whatever.c:10
(gdb) command 1
Type commands for when breakpoint 1 is hit, one per line.
End with a line saying just "end".
>call mcheck(0)
>continue
>end
(gdb) …

This will however only work if no initialization function of any object involved calls any of the malloc functions since mcheck must be called before the first such function.

Function: enum mcheck_status mprobe (void *pointer)

Preliminary: | MT-Unsafe race:mcheck const:malloc_hooks | AS-Unsafe corrupt | AC-Unsafe corrupt | See POSIX Safety Concepts.

The mprobe function lets you explicitly check for inconsistencies in a particular allocated block. You must have already called mcheck at the beginning of the program, to do its occasional checks; calling mprobe requests an additional consistency check to be done at the time of the call.

The argument pointer must be a pointer returned by malloc or realloc. mprobe returns a value that says what inconsistency, if any, was found. The values are described below.

Data Type: enum mcheck_status

This enumerated type describes what kind of inconsistency was detected in an allocated block, if any. Here are the possible values:

MCHECK_DISABLED

mcheck was not called before the first allocation. No consistency checking can be done.

MCHECK_OK

No inconsistency detected.

MCHECK_HEAD

The data immediately before the block was modified. This commonly happens when an array index or pointer is decremented too far.

MCHECK_TAIL

The data immediately after the block was modified. This commonly happens when an array index or pointer is incremented too far.

MCHECK_FREE

The block was already freed.

Another possibility to check for and guard against bugs in the use of malloc, realloc and free is to set the environment variable MALLOC_CHECK_. When MALLOC_CHECK_ is set to a non-zero value less than 4, a special (less efficient) implementation is used which is designed to be tolerant against simple errors, such as double calls of free with the same argument, or overruns of a single byte (off-by-one bugs). Not all such errors can be protected against, however, and memory leaks can result. Like in the case of mcheck, one would need to preload the libc_malloc_debug library to enable MALLOC_CHECK_ functionality. Without this preloaded library, setting MALLOC_CHECK_ will have no effect.

Any detected heap corruption results in immediate termination of the process.

There is one problem with MALLOC_CHECK_: in SUID or SGID binaries it could possibly be exploited since diverging from the normal programs behavior it now writes something to the standard error descriptor. Therefore the use of MALLOC_CHECK_ is disabled by default for SUID and SGID binaries. It can be enabled again by the system administrator by adding a file /etc/suid-debug (the content is not important it could be empty).

So, what’s the difference between using MALLOC_CHECK_ and linking with ‘-lmcheck’? MALLOC_CHECK_ is orthogonal with respect to ‘-lmcheck’. ‘-lmcheck’ has been added for backward compatibility. Both MALLOC_CHECK_ and ‘-lmcheck’ should uncover the same bugs - but using MALLOC_CHECK_ you don’t need to recompile your application.


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