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Errors can occur when incorrect assumptions are made about the type of data being read. These assumptions may be violated, for example, when binary data has been read from a file instead of text from a user's terminal or the output of a process is piped to stdin. (See FIO14-C. Understand the difference between text mode and binary mode with file streams.) On some systems, it may also be possible to input a null byte (as well as other binary codes) from the keyboard.

Subclause of the C Standard [ISO/IEC 9899:2011] says,

The fgets function returns s if successful. If end-of-file is encountered and no characters have been read into the array, the contents of the array remain unchanged and a null pointer is returned.

The wide-character function fgetws() has the same behavior. Therefore, if fgets() or fgetws() returns a non-null pointer, it is safe to assume that the array contains data. However, it is erroneous to assume that the array contains a nonempty string because the data may contain null characters.

Noncompliant Code Example

This noncompliant code example attempts to remove the trailing newline (\n) from an input line. The fgets() function is typically used to read a newline-terminated line of input from a stream. It takes a size parameter for the destination buffer and copies, at most, size - 1 characters from a stream to a character array.

#include <stdio.h>
#include <string.h>
enum { BUFFER_SIZE = 1024 };

void func(void) {
  char buf[BUFFER_SIZE];

  if (fgets(buf, sizeof(buf), stdin) == NULL) {
    /* Handle error */
  buf[strlen(buf) - 1] = '\0';

The strlen() function computes the length of a string by determining the number of characters that precede the terminating null character. A problem occurs if the first character read from the input by fgets() happens to be a null character. This may occur, for example, if a binary data file is read by the fgets() call [Lai 2006]. If the first character in buf is a null character, strlen(buf) returns 0, the expression strlen(buf) - 1 wraps around to a large positive value, and a write-outside-array-bounds error occurs.

Compliant Solution

This compliant solution uses strchr() to replace the newline character in the string if it exists:

#include <stdio.h>
#include <string.h>
enum { BUFFER_SIZE = 1024 };

void func(void) {
  char buf[BUFFER_SIZE];
  char *p;

  if (fgets(buf, sizeof(buf), stdin)) {
    p = strchr(buf, '\n');
    if (p) {
      *p = '\0';
  } else {
    /* Handle error */

Risk Assessment

Incorrectly assuming that character data has been read can result in an out-of-bounds memory write or other flawed logic.




Remediation Cost









Automated Detection






Supported: Astrée reports defects due to returned (empty) strings.
Axivion Bauhaus Suite


(general)Considers the possibility that fgets() and fgetws() may return empty strings (Warnings of various classes may be triggered depending on subsequent operations on those strings. For example, the noncompliant code example cited above would trigger a buffer underrun warning.)

Could detect some violations of this rule (In particular, it could detect the noncompliant code example by searching for fgets(), followed by strlen() - 1, which could be −1. The crux of this rule is that a string returned by fgets() could still be empty, because the first char is '\0'. There are probably other code examples that violate this guideline; they would need to be enumerated before ROSE could detect them.)

LDRA tool suite
44 SEnhanced enforcement
Parasoft C/C++test


Avoid accessing arrays out of bounds
Polyspace Bug Finder


CERT C: Rule FIO37-CChecks for use of indeterminate string (rule fully covered)


2840, 2841, 2842, 2843,

2844, 2935, 2936, 2937,

2938, 2939

Related Vulnerabilities

Search for vulnerabilities resulting from the violation of this rule on the CERT website.

Related Guidelines

Key here (explains table format and definitions)


Taxonomy item


CERT C Secure Coding StandardFIO14-C. Understand the difference between text mode and binary mode with file streamsPrior to 2018-01-12: CERT: Unspecified Relationship
CERT C Secure Coding StandardFIO20-C. Avoid unintentional truncation when using fgets() or fgetws()Prior to 2018-01-12: CERT: Unspecified Relationship
CWE 2.11CWE-241, Improper Handling of Unexpected Data Type2017-07-05: CERT: Rule subset of CWE

CERT-CWE Mapping Notes

Key here for mapping notes

CWE-241 and FIO37-C

CWE-241 = Union( FIO37-C, list) where list =

  • Improper handling of unexpected data type that does not come from the fgets() function.


[ISO/IEC 9899:2011]

Subclause, "The fgets Function"
Subclause, "The fgetws Function"

[Lai 2006]
[Seacord 2013]Chapter 2, "Strings"


  1. On POSIX systems it is also easy to input a null byte (and some other "binary" codes) from the keyboard, usually as ctrl-SPACE or ctrl-@.
    In fact I used this trick once to unlock a password-protected screen saver.

  2. While this specific NCCE/CCE pair is certainly checkable by ROSE, I feel that the general case is not...I suspect there are just too many ways in which one can try to remove the imaginary last newline char in a string.

    1. added how to catch the NCCE/CCE pair.

      1. I was surprised at the mention of gets() in this new text. My immediate reaction was "surely ROSE would flag all uses of gets() as unsafe". Then I realised there doesn't seem to be a rule anywhere about never using gets(). At least, not one I could find. If that's true, it seems like a glaring omission.

        1. This rule was meant to be covered under STR35-C. Do not copy data from an unbounded source to a fixed-length array.

          This was an attempt to document the general principle and not create a rule that only applied to one function. The gets() function is shown as the NCE.

          1. Thanks for the pointer. I was expecting to find it under FIO, but I should have thought to look in STR as well. (I also tried a search for "gets" but that was no use as the wiki, no doubt trying to be helpful but not succeeding in this case, returned a large number of hits for the singular "get" as well.)

        2. Oops, right, never use gets(). I took it out of the ROSE paragraph.

  3. This is a good rule, but I feel that the title could use some strenghtening. The main vul is that fgets() can read X bytes, producing a Y-character string where X>Y (Y may even be 0). The GNU C programming tutorial actually deprecates fgets() in favor of getline() because of this issue.

    The rule could probably use more NCCEs, which would rely on the mistaken assumption that X==Y.

    1. Changed the title, and added some background on fgets(). Since C99 promises that fgets() fills the array when successful, it is easy to jump to conclusions and assume the array is a nonempty NTBS. Which the NCCE shows, but the explanation needed refinement.