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Secure Programming Cookbook for C and C++ by Matt Messier, John Viega

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13.2. Erasing Data from Memory Securely

Problem

You want to minimize the exposure of data such as passwords and cryptographic keys to local attacks.

Solution

You can only guarantee that memory is erased if you declare it to be volatile at the point where you write over it. In addition, you must not use an operation such as realloc( ) that may silently move sensitive data. In any event, you might also need to worry about data being swapped to disk; see Recipe 13.3.

Discussion

Securely erasing data from memory is a lot easier in C and C++ than it is in languages where all memory is managed behind the programmer’s back. There are still some nonobvious pitfalls, however.

One pitfall, particularly in C++, is that some API functions may silently move data behind the programmer’s back, leaving behind a copy of the data in a different part of memory. The most prominent example in the C realm is realloc( ), which will sometimes move a piece of memory, updating the programmer’s pointer. Yet the old memory location will generally still have the unaltered data, up until the point where the memory manager reallocates the data and the program overwrites the value.

Another pitfall is that functions like memset( ) may fail to wipe data because of compiler optimizations.

Compiler writers have worked hard to implement optimizations into their compilers to help make code run faster (or compile to smaller machine code). Some of these optimizations can realize significant performance gains, but sometimes ...

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