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Developers should take steps to prevent sensitive information such as passwords, cryptographic keys, and other secrets from being inadvertently visible to other applications. This includes attempting to prevent such data from being written to disk.
Two common mechanisms by which data is inadvertently be written to disk are swapping and core dumps.
Many general-purpose operating systems implement a virtual memory management technique called paging (also referred to as swapping) to transfer pages between main memory and an auxiliary store, such as a disk drive. This feature is typically implemented as a task running in the kernel of the operating system, and its operation is invisible to the running program.
A core dump is the recorded state of process memory written to disk for later examination by a debugger. Core dumps are typically generated when a program has terminated abnormally, either through an error resulting in a crash or by receiving a signal that causes such a termination.
The POSIX standard system call for controlling resource limits,
setrlimit(), can be used to disable the creation of core dumps. This prevents an attacker with the ability to halt the program from gaining access to sensitive data that might be contained in the dump.
Noncompliant Code Example
In this noncompliant code example, sensitive information generated by
create_secret() is stored in the dynamically allocated buffer,
secret, which is processed and eventually deallocated by a call to
free(). The memory page containing
secret can be swapped out to disk. If the program crashes before the call to
free(), the information stored in
secret may be stored in the core dump.
Compliant Solution (POSIX)
To prevent the information being written to a core dump, the size of core dumps that the program will generate should be set to 0. This can be accomplished by using
Compliant Solution (Privileged Process, POSIX)
Processes with elevated privileges can disable paging by "locking" memory in place using either mlock() (POSIX) or [Open Group 04]. This ensures that memory is never copied to the hard drive, where it may be retained indefinitely in nonvolatile storage.
This compliant solution not only disables the creation of core files, but also ensures that the buffer is not swapped to hard disk.
Compliant Solution (Privileged Process, Windows)
Windows processes running with elevated privileges can disable paging by locking memory in place using
VirtualLock() (Windows) [MSDN]:
Writing sensitive data to disk preserves it for future retrieval by an attacker, who may even be able to bypass the access restrictions of the operating system by using a disk maintenance program.
Search for vulnerabilities resulting from the violation of this rule on the CERT website.
This rule appears in the C Secure Coding Standard as MEM06-C. Ensure that sensitive data is not written out to disk.
[ISO/IEC PDTR 24772] "XZX Memory Locking"
[MITRE 07] CWE ID 591, "Sensitive Data Storage in Improperly Locked Memory," and CWE ID 528, "Information Leak Through Core Dump Files"
[Open Group 04]
[Wheeler 03] Sections 7.14 and 11.4