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This paper presents a systematic solution to the persistent problem of buffer overflow attacks. Buffer overflow attacks gained notoriety in 1988 as part of the Morris Worm incident on the Internet. While it is fairly simple to fix individual buffer overflow vulnerabilities, buffer overflow attacks continue to this day. Hundreds of attacks have been discovered, and while most of the obvious vulnerabilities have now been patched, more sophisticated buffer overflow attacks continue to emerge.

We describe StackGuard: a simple compiler technique that virtually eliminates buffer overflow vulnerabilities with only modest performance penalties. Privileged programs that are recompiled with the StackGuard compiler extension no longer yield control to the attacker, but rather enter a fail-safe state. These programs require no source code changes at all, and are binary-compatible with existing operating systems and libraries. We describe the compiler technique (a simple patch to gcc), as well as a set of variations on the technique that trade-off between penetration resistance and performance. We present experimental results of both the penetration resistance and the performance impact of this technique.

Crispin Cowan
Tue Dec 9 16:04:30 PST 1997