Every day, hackers are constantly discovering new ways to exploit vulnerabilities in electronic devices, whether it be websites, applications, or even system architecture. A common thing that all electronic devices have is that they rely on programs that are stored in memory. Hackers have taken advantage of this by finding vulnerabilities known as buffer overflows.
Buffer overflow attacks have been around for a while, and they continue to cause serious problems in cyberspace. In this article, we’ll explain what buffer overflow attacks are and how you can prevent them.
Understanding Buffers and System Memory
A buffer overflow attack occurs when a piece of data is written beyond the boundaries of a given fixed-size buffer in memory. This can cause the program to crash, or allow malicious code to be executed. To understand how this works, you need to know what a buffer is and how a computer’s memory works.
The two main types of memory in a computer are stack memory and heap memory. They are both data structures used for memory allocation, but they differ in multiple ways. For example, stack memory is typically accessed faster than heap memory.
The stack and the heap are two very different types of memory storage. The stack uses the Last-in, First-out (LIFO) concept, while the heap assigns memory using dynamic allocation. However, the one thing that the stack and the heap have in common is that they both use a buffer.
What Is a Buffer?
A buffer is an area of your computer’s RAM that temporarily stores data as it is being moved from one location to another. This is usually done to help optimize the execution of programs.
Now, in a computer’s memory, there is a return address called the Extended Instruction Pointer (EIP). This return address is used to point the computer to a specified program when it is filled. When a buffer overflows, it overflows into the return address.
Let’s say you have a jar that can fit five letters. So if you put in words like “sugar” or “peace,” there’s no problem. But when you have a word like “authentication,” it won’t fit. This leads to a bug or crash in the system. But hackers can exploit this vulnerability to start a buffer overflow attack.
What Is a Buffer Overflow Attack and How Does It Work?
There are two main types of buffer overflow attacks: those that exploit the return address, and those that exploit the EIP. In both cases, the attacker takes control of the program by writing data into the system’s memory, causing it to overflow. By carefully manipulating the EIP or return address, the attacker can redirect the program to a malicious program that gives them access to the system or reveals sensitive information stored on the system.
There are five major steps in buffer overflow attacks:
- Spiking: This is when you introduce new code or data into the system to see how it reacts.
- Fuzzing: This is when you send malformed or unexpected data to the system to see how it reacts.
- Finding the offset: This is when you determine how much data you need to overflow the buffer.
- Overwriting the EIP or return address: This is when you overwrite the instruction pointer or return address with malicious code.
- Exploiting the vulnerability: This is when you execute the malicious code to take over the system.
What Are the Types of Buffer Overflow Attacks?
Buffer overflow attacks come in many forms, but the two most common are stack-based and heap-based. In a stack-based attack, the attacker corrupts the data stored in the stack, which can lead to changes in program execution.
Heap-based attacks, on the other hand, target dynamic memory allocation in order to corrupt data and subvert program execution.
How Can You Prevent Buffer Overflow Attacks?
Buffer overflow attacks can be stopped using different measures, like address space layout randomization, secure programming languages, and making sure that there are proper security measures in place.
1. Using OS Runtime Protection
Runtime protection, also called runtime array bounds checking, is a security measure that ensures every program run is within the buffer space or memory available. It also checks every data written into the memory of the system, making it difficult for hackers to exploit vulnerabilities by overwriting data into the system.
2. Using Secure Programming Languages
Runtime array bounds checking is not something that is done in programming languages like C and C++ because it can slow down the system. This lack of checking makes these languages more susceptible to buffer overflow attacks. Languages that are more secure, like C
3. Use Address Space Layout Randomization (ASLR)
This security measure is designed to make it difficult for an attacker to navigate through sensitive functions in the memory by randomly assigning the addresses of programs and functions in a system’s memory to different data regions.
4. Ensure Strict Security Policies
This involves keeping the system updated regularly, validating every data written into the system, and assigning the least privileges to users. With the proper security policies in place, you shouldn’t have to worry about a buffer overflow attack.
Keeping Your Security Tight Is Essential to Combat Buffer Overflow Attacks
There’s an old saying in security that goes, “as long as a system is used by humans, a vulnerability exists.” While this may be true, there are ways to reduce the chances of being attacked. By ensuring that proper security measures are in place and followed strictly, you can make it much harder for hackers to exploit vulnerabilities.
Of course, hackers are always coming up with new ways to attack systems. So it’s important to stay up-to-date on the latest advancements in cybersecurity. This way, you can be one step ahead of the hackers and keep your system safe.