Fat Pointers for Temporal Memory Safety of C

TitleFat Pointers for Temporal Memory Safety of C
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2023
AuthorsZhou, J, Criswell, J, Hicks, M
JournalProceedings of the ACM on Programming Languages
Date Published3/20/2023
KeywordsCryptography and Security (cs.CR), FOS: Computer and information sciences

Temporal memory safety bugs, especially use-after-free and double free bugs, pose a major security threat to C programs. Real-world exploits utilizing these bugs enable attackers to read and write arbitrary memory locations, causing disastrous violations of confidentiality, integrity, and availability. Many previous solutions retrofit temporal memory safety to C, but they all either incur high performance overhead and/or miss detecting certain types of temporal memory safety bugs.
In this paper, we propose a temporal memory safety solution that is both efficient and comprehensive. Specifically, we extend Checked C, a spatially-safe extension to C, with temporally-safe pointers. These are implemented by combining two techniques: fat pointers and dynamic key-lock checks. We show that the fat-pointer solution significantly improves running time and memory overhead compared to the disjoint-metadata approach that provides the same level of protection. With empirical program data and hands-on experience porting real-world applications, we also show that our solution is practical in terms of backward compatibility -- one of the major complaints about fat pointers.