Difference between revisions of "Integer overflow"

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Revision as of 17:44, 13 April 2006


An integer overflow condition exists when an integer, which has not been properly sanity checked is used in the determination of an offset or size for memory allocation, copying, concatenation, or similarly. If the integer in question is incremented past the maximum possible value, it may wrap to become a very small, or negative number, therefore providing a very incorrect value.


  • Availability: Integer overflows generally lead to undefined behavior and therefore crashes. In the case of overflows involving loop index variables, the likelihood of infinite loops is also high.
  • Integrity: If the value in question is important to data (as opposed to flow), simple data corruption has occurred. Also, if the integer overflow has resulted in a buffer overflow condition, data corruption will most likely take place.
  • Access control (instruction processing): Integer overflows can sometimes trigger buffer overflows which can be used to execute arbitrary code. This is usually outside the scope of a program's implicit security policy.

Exposure period

  • Requirements specification: The choice could be made to use a language that is not susceptible to these issues.
  • Design: Mitigating technologies such as safe string libraries and container abstractions could be introduced. (This will only prevent the transition from integer overflow to buffer overflow, and only in some cases.)
  • Implementation: Many logic errors can lead to this condition. It can be exacerbated by lack of or misuse of mitigating technologies.


  • Languages: C, C++, Fortran, Assembly
  • Operating platforms: All

Required resources




Likelihood of exploit


Avoidance and mitigation

  • Pre-design: Use a language or compiler that performs automatic bounds checking.
  • Design: Use of sanity checks and assertions at the object level. Ensure that all protocols are strictly defined, such that all out of bounds behavior can be identified simply.
  • Pre-design through Build: Canary style bounds checking, library changes which ensure the validity of chunk data, and other such fixes are possible but should not be relied upon.


Integer overflows are for the most part only problematic in that they lead to issues of availability. Common instances of this can be found when primitives subject to overflow are used as a loop index variable.

In some situations, however, it is possible that an integer overflow may lead to an exploitable buffer overflow condition. In these circumstances, it may be possible for the attacker to control the size of the buffer as well as the execution of the program.

Recently, a number of integer overflow-based, buffer-overflow conditions have surfaced in prominent software packages. Due to this fact, the relatively difficult to exploit condition is now more well known and therefore more likely to be attacked. The best strategy for mitigation includes: a multi-level strategy including the strict definition of proper behavior (to restrict scale, and therefore prevent integer overflows long before they occur); frequent sanity checks; preferably at the object level; and standard buffer overflow mitigation techniques.


Integer overflows can be complicated and difficult to detect. The following example is an attempt to show how an integer overflow may lead to undefined looping behavior:

short int bytesRec = 0; char buf[SOMEBIGNUM];

while(bytesRec < MAXGET) {

 bytesRec += getFromInput(buf+bytesRec);

} In the above case, it is entirely possible that bytesRec may overflow, continuously creating a lower number than MAXGET and also overwriting the first MAXGET-1 bytes of buf.

Related problems

  • Buffer overflow (and related vulnerabilities): Integer overflows are often exploited only by creating buffer overflow conditions to take advantage of.