Stack Smashing

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I've been playing around with C a lot in my spare time recently. Something I managed to run into last night was an interesting case of buffer overflow that valgrind lovingly referred to as "stack smashing".

Let me layout some of the information for you:

We have, mysql interaction through a file called (cleverly) db.c. It's queries are stored in it's header file as strings ready to have their %s, %08lu and %whathaveyou filled up by the information I sprintf (or snprintf) into them.

Next up, we have a couple of structs that represent some of the tables in the database. These are my models. Each model is pretty simple, simple fields, some special methods to zero-out the memory used in the structures and a few functions that format whatever data is given to them before storing it into the model.

Finally, we have the JSON helper file, which takes one of the model structures and then formats a JSON representation of it, once again, through some sprintf activity.

This is all pretty simple sounding. So where did it go wrong?

Oddly enough, in the JSON formatting. Here's what would happen:

When I saw the error messages, I began hunting around a bit for the problem near where the program had reported the smash -- at the end of the insertion function.

The strange thing was that it was reporting the last line of the function as the area that was having a bad read. Confused I stared at my output for a little bit before turning towards the mySQL error that had been reported above valgrind's output and backtraces.

Syntax error? I checked the query. No error there. So somehow I was introducing a syntax error into my query when inserting content. Well that sounds reasonable.

Except that the content being printed into the query was a sha256 hash. In ASCII characters. So how the heck could there be a syntax error near a timestamp? (This was the reported error).

With nothing else to go off of in my log, I added logging to the query itself within the function and was surprised to see that my sha256 hash had somehow went from being 64 characters of ASCII to being part of the text stored in a different field of the struct.

Clearly something had gone wrong when I wrote the field in the structure right? I checked my functions and saw that I had very deliberately set the size of the character buffers to safe sizes and that they shouldn't have overran.

Switching to trial and error mode I decided to print the offending field through out the programs lifetime and figure out when it changed. I was made even more confused when it was changed when the structure had been formatted for JSON use.

I scanned my JSON formatting code. Added additional logging. Nothing went wrong in the function it seemed. My program crashed and burned on exiting that function though. Taking a second look, my last statement in the function was something along the lines of

 return sprintf(jsonOutput, "%formattinghere",bunch,of,variables) 

Well, at least it made sense to accidently overrun a buffer during the use of sprintf -- after all, sprintf is notorious for usage in buffer overflow attacks.

I increased the size of my jsonOutput variable and lo and behold all worked well. Decreasing it down again resulted in a stack smash and a crash. Good! Reproducable errors are the best kind.

To actually fix the problem (besides increasing a buffer size) I'm re-coding my formatting functions to all use snprintf and do some sanity checking on the lengths of characters written before attempting to write into the output buffer.

It's these kind's of problems that I love to be honest. Dealing with memory and with primitive data types is probably one of my favorite things to do.

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