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USENIX Technical Program - Abstract - USENIX 99

strlcpy and strlcat--Consistent, Safe, String Copy and Concatenation

Todd C. Miller, University of Colorado, Boulder; Theo de Raadt, The OpenBSD Project


As the prevalence of buffer overflow attacks has increased, more and more programmers are using size or length-bounded string functions such as strncpy() and strncat(). While this is certainly an encouraging trend, the standard C string functions generally used were not really designed for the task. This paper describes an alternate, intuitive, and consistent API designed with safe string copies in mind.

There are several problems encountered when strncpy() and strncat() are used as safe versions of strcpy() and strcat(). Both functions deal with NUL-termination and the length parameter in different and non-intuitive ways that confuse even experienced programmers. They also provide no easy way to detect when truncation occurs. Finally, strncpy() zero-fills the remainder of the destination string, incurring a performance penalty. Of all these issues, the confusion caused by the length parameters and the related issue of NUL-termination are most important. When we audited the OpenBSD source tree for potential security holes we found rampant misuse of strncpy() and strncat(). While not all of these resulted in exploitable security holes, they made it clear that the rules for using strncpy() and strncat() in safe string operations are widely misunderstood. The proposed replacement functions, strlcpy() and strlcat(), address these problems by presenting an API designed for safe string copies (see Figure 1 for function prototypes). Both functions guarantee NUL-termination, take as a length parameter the size of the string in bytes, and provide an easy way to detect truncation. Neither function zero-fills unused bytes in the destination.

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Last changed: 13 Mar 2002 ml
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