Tag Archives: C programming language

What is memory safety?

I am in the process of putting together a MOOC on software security, which goes live in October. At the moment I’m finishing up material on buffer overflows, format string attacks, and other sorts of vulnerabilities in C. After presenting this material, I plan to step back and say, “What do these errors have in common? They are violations of memory safety.” Then I’ll state the definition of memory safety, say why these vulnerabilities are violations of memory safety, and conversely say why memory safety, e.g., as ensured by languages like Java, prevents them.

No problem, right? Memory safety is a common technical term, so I expected its definition would be easy to find (or derive). But it’s much trickier than I thought.

My goal with this post is to work out a definition of memory safety for C that is semantically clean, rules out code that seems intuitively unsafe, but does not rule out code that seems reasonable. The simpler, and more complete, the definition, the better. My final definition is based on the notion of defined/undefined memory and the use of pointers as capabilities. If you have better ideas, I’d love to know them!

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Filed under PL in practice, Semantics, Software Security