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The ISO/IEC 9899-1999 C specification provides standard functions to manipulate files that are designed to avoid the details of the underlying system. However, file manipulation and file operations are inherently tied to the operating system. Many of the common vulnerabilities associated with file operations exist because the ISO/IEC 9899-1999 C specification lacks facilities to adequately interact with files and the file system, making it impossible to specify the correct behavior.

A better way to interact with files, in terms of security, is to use functions designed for the native system. Many implementation specific functions offer a level of control over file objects that the ISO/IEC 9899-1999 C specification does not.

Additionally, there are well-known recommendations for dealing with common file operations securely that use non-standard functions. This recommendation opens those options up to implementers of this standard.

File Creation

The C99 standard function fopen() is typically used to open existing, and create new files. However, fopen() does not provide a way to test file existence potentially allowing a program to overwrite or access and unintended file.

Non-Compliant Example 1

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C fopen() function is used to open an existing file or create a new one. The C11 version of the fopen() and fopen_s() functions provides a mode flag, x, that provides the mechanism needed to determine if the file that is to be opened exists. Not using this mode flag can lead to a program overwriting or accessing an unintended file.

Noncompliant Code Example (fopen())

In this noncompliant code example, the file referenced by file_name is opened for writing. This example is noncompliant if the programmer's intent was to create a new file, but the referenced file already exists.

Code Block
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langc
char *file_name;
FILE *fp;

/* Initialize file_name */

fp = fopen(file_name, "w");
if (!fp) {
  /* Handle error */
}

Noncompliant Code Example (fopen_s(), C11 Annex K)

The C11 Annex K fopen_s() function is designed to improve the security of the fopen() function. Like the fopen() function, fopen_s() provides a mechanism to determine whether the file exists. See below for use of the exclusive mode flag.

Code Block
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langc
char *file_name;
FILE *fp;

/* Initialize file_name */
errno_t res = fopen_s(&fp, file_name, "w");
if (res != 0) {
  /* Handle error */
}

Compliant Solution (fopen_s(), C11 Annex K)

The C Standard provides a new flag to address this problem. Subclause 7.21.5.3, paragraph 5 [ISO/IEC 9899:2011], states:

Opening a file with exclusive mode ('x' as the last character in the mode argument) fails if the file already exists or cannot be created. Otherwise, the file is created with exclusive (also known as non-shared) access to the extent that the underlying system supports exclusive access.

This option is also provided by the GNU C library [Loosemore 2007].

This compliant solution uses the x mode character to instruct fopen_s() to fail rather than open an existing file:

Code Block
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langc
char *file_name;

/* Initialize file_name */
FILE *fp;
errno_t res = fopen_s(&fp, file_name, "wx");
if (res != 0) {
  /* Handle error */
}

Use of this option allows for the easy remediation of legacy code. However, note that Microsoft Visual Studio 2012 and earlier do not support the x mode character [MSDN].

Compliant Solution (open(), POSIX)

The open() function, as defined in the Standard for Information Technology—Portable Operating System Interface (POSIX®), Base Specifications, Issue 7 [IEEE Std 1003.1:2013], is available on many platforms and provides finer control than fopen(). In particular, open() accepts the O_CREAT and O_EXCL flags. When used together, these flags instruct the open() function to fail if the file specified by file_name already exists.

Code Block
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langc
char *file_name;
int new_file_mode;

/* Initialize file_name and new_file_mode */

int fd = open(file_name, O_CREAT | O_EXCL | O_WRONLY, new_file_mode);
if (fd == -1) {
  /* Handle Errorerror */
}

Care should be taken when using O_EXCL with remote file systems because it does not work with NFS version 2. NFS version 3 added support for O_EXCL mode in open().

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Compliant Solution 1.

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IETF RFC 1813 [Callaghan 1995] defines the EXCLUSIVE value to the mode argument of CREATE:

EXCLUSIVE specifies that the server is to follow exclusive creation semantics, using the verifier to ensure exclusive creation of the target. No attributes may be provided in this case, since the server may use the target file metadata to store the createverf3 verifier.

For examples of how to check for the existence of a file without opening it, see recommendation FIO10-C. Take care when using the rename() function.

Compliant Solution (fdopen(), POSIX)

For code that operates on FILE pointers and not file descriptors, the POSIX fdopen() function can be used to associate an open stream with the file descriptor returned by open(), as shown in this compliant solution [IEEE Std 1003.1:2013]:

Code Block
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langc
char *file_name;
int new_file_mode;
FILE *fp;
int fd;

/* Initialize file_name and new_file_mode */

fd = open(file_name, O_CREAT | O_EXCL | O_WR_ONLYWRONLY, new_file_mode);
if (fd == -1) {
  /* Handle Errorerror */
}

fp = fdopen(fd, "w");
if (fp == NULL) {
  /* Handle error */
}

Compliant Solution (Windows)

The Win32 API CreateFile() allows a programmer to create or open a file depending on the flags passed in. Passing in the CREATE_NEW flag ensures the call fails if the file already exists. This compliant solution demonstrates how to open a file for reading and writing without sharing access to the file such that the call fails if the file already exists.

Code Block
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langc
TCHAR *file_name;
HANDLE hFile = CreateFile(file_name, GENERIC_READ | GENERIC_WRITE, 0, 0, 
                          CREATE_NEW, FILE_ATTRIBUTE_NORMAL, 0);
if (INVALID_HANDLE_VALUE == hFile) {
  DWORD err = GetLastError();
  if (ERROR_FILE_EXISTS == err) {
    /* Handle file exists error */
  } else {
    /* Handle other error */
  }
}

Risk Assessment

The ability to determine whether an existing file has been opened or a new file has been created provides greater assurance that a file other than the intended file is not acted upon.

Recommendation

Severity

Likelihood

Remediation Cost

Priority

Level

FIO03-C

Medium

Probable

High

P4

L3

Automated Detection

Tool

Version

Checker

Description

Coverity6.5OPEN_ARGSFully implemented
LDRA tool suite
Include Page
LDRA_V
LDRA_V
44 SEnhanced Enforcement
PRQA QA-C
Include Page
PRQA QA-C_v
PRQA QA-C_v
5012Partially implemented

Related Vulnerabilities

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

Related Guidelines

Bibliography

[Callaghan 1995]IETF RFC 1813 NFS Version 3 Protocol Specification
[IEEE Std 1003.1:2013]System Interfaces: open
[ISO/IEC 9899:2011]Subclause 7.21.5.3, "The fopen Function"
Subclause K.3.5.2.1, "The fopen_s Function"
[Loosemore 2007]Section 12.3, "Opening Streams"
[Seacord 2013]Chapter 8, "File I/O"


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