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C-Based Toolchain Hardening

Revision as of 11:52, 17 February 2013 by Jeffrey Walton (talk | contribs)

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C-Based Toolchain Hardening is a treatment of project settings that will help you deliver reliable and secure code when using C, C++ and Objective C languages in a number of development environments. This article will examine Microsoft and GCC toolchains for the C, C++ and Objective C languages. It will guide you through the steps you should take to create executables with firmer defensive postures and increased integration with the available platform security. Effectively configuring the toolchain also means your project will enjoy a number of benefits during development, including enhanced warnings and static analysis, and self-debugging code.

There are four areas to be examined when hardening the toolchain: configuration, preprocessor, compiler, and linker. Nearly all areas are overlooked or neglected when setting up a project. The neglect appears to be pandemic, and it applies to nearly all projects including Auto-configured projects, Makefile-based, Eclipse-based, Visual Studio-based, and Xcode-based.

The article will also detail steps which quality assurance personnel can perform to ensure third party code meets organizational standards. Many organizations have Security Testing and Evaluation (ST&E) programs or operate in the US Federal arena where supply chain audits are necessary. If you audit a program with a lot of gaps, it could indicate the company providing the binaries does not have a mature engineering process or has gaps in its internal QA processes. For those who lack mature quality assurance or acceptance and testing criteria, then this article will also provide helpful suggestions.

Proper use of auditing tools such as checksec and readelf on Linux and BinScope on Windows means source code will be rarely needed for some portions of an audit. Lack of source code clears a number of legal obstacles in the acceptance testing process since NDAs or other agreements may not be required. For those who are not aware, the US's DMCA (PUBLIC LAW 105–304) has proper exceptions for reverse engineering and security testing and evaluation. The RE exemption is in Section 1205 (f) REVERSE ENGINEERING; and the ST&E exemption is in Section 1205 (i) SECURITY TESTING. If you don't need source code access, then you can decompile, re-engineer, and test without the need for consent or worry of reprisals.

A secure toolchain is not a silver bullet. It is one piece of an overall strategy in the engineering process. A secure toolchain will compliment existing processes such as static analysis, dynamic analysis, secure coding, negative test suites, and the like. And a project will still require solid designs and architectures.

This is a prescriptive article, and it will not debate semantics or speculate on behavior. As such, it will specify semantics, assign behaviors, and present a position. The semantics, behaviors, and position have worked extremely well in the past for the author (Jeffrey Walton). They have been so effective in his development strategy that code in the field often goes years between bug reports.

Finally, the OWASP ESAPI C++ project eats its own dog food. Many of the examples you will see in this article come directly from the ESAPI C++ project.


Code must be correct. It should be secure. It can be efficient.

Dr. Jon Bentley: "If it doesn't have to be correct, I can make it as fast as you'd like it to be".

Dr. Gary McGraw: "Thou shalt not rely solely on security features and functions to build secure software as security is an emergent property of the entire system and thus relies on building and integrating all parts properly".


Configuration is the first opportunity to configure your project for success. Not only do you have to configure your project to meet reliability and security goals, you must also configure integrated libraries properly. You typically have has three choices. First, you can use auto-configuration utilities if on Linux or Unix. Second, you can write a makefile by hand. This is predominant on Linux, Mac OS X, and Unix, but it applies to Windows as well. Finally, you can use an integrated development environment or IDE.

At this stage in the process, you should concentrate on configuring for two builds: Debug and Release. Debug will be used for development and include full instrumentation. Release will be configured for production. The difference between the two settings is usually optimization level and debug level. A third build configuration is Test, and its usually a special case of Release.

For debug and release builds, the settings are typically diametrically opposed. Debug configurations have no optimizations and full debug information; while Release builds have optimizations and minimal to moderate debug information. The Test configuration is often a Release configuration that makes every public for testing. For example, all member functions public (a C++ class) and all interfaces (library or shared object) are made available for testing.

Though many do not realize, debug code is more highly valued than release code because it holds additional instrumentation. The debug instrumentation will cause a program to become nearly "self-debugging". Self-debugging code reduces your time during trouble shooting and debugging. Reducing time under the debugger means you have more time for development and feature requests. The additional debug instrumentation will be removed in production code via preprocessor macros.

Auto Tools

Auto configuration tools are popular on many Linux and Unix based systems, and the tools include Autosetup, Autoconf, Automake, config, and Configure. The tools work together to produce project files from scripts and template files. After the process completes, your project should be setup and ready to be made with make.

When using auto configuration tools, there are a few files of interest worth mentioning. The files are part of the auto tools chain and include m4 and the various *.in, *.ac (autoconf), and *.am (automake) files. At times, you will have to open them (or the resulting makefiles) to tune the "stock" configuration.

There are three downsides to the command line configuration tools in the toolchain: (1) they often ignore user requests, (2) they cannot create configurations, and (3) security is often not a goal (for modern expectations of 'secure').

To demonstrate the first issue, confider your project with the following: configure CFLAGS="-Wall -fPIE" CXXFLAGS="-Wall -fPIE" LDFLAGS="-pie". You will probably find the auto tools ignored your request. You will have to open an m4 file or and fix the configuration.

For the second point, you will probably be disappointed to learn Automake does not support the concept of configurations. Its not entirely Autoconf's or Automake's fault - Make and its inability to detect changes is the underlying problem. Specifically, Make only checks modification times of prerequisites and targets, and does not check things like CFLAGS and </tt>CXXFLAGS</tt>. The net effect is you will not receive expected results when you issue make debug and then make test.

Finally, you will probably be disappointed to learn tools such as Autoconf and Automake miss many security related opportunities and ship insecure out of the box. There are a number of compiler switches and linker flags that improve the defensive posture of a program, but they are not 'on' by default. Tools like Autoconf - which are supposed to handle this situation - often provides setting to serve the lowest of all denominators.

A recent discussion on the Automake mailing list illuminates the issue: Enabling compiler warning flags. Attempts to improve default configurations were met with resistance and no action was taken. The resistance is often of the form, "<some obscure platform> does not support <established security feature>" or "<some useful warning> also produces false positives". Its noteworthy that David Wheeler, the author of Secure Programming for Linux and Unix HOWTO, was one of the folks trying to improve the posture.


Suppose you want to support Debug, Test, and Release configurations. If you are working in an IDE such as Eclipse or Visual Studio, you will be in good shape and won't encounter any hardships. The development environment will manage the settings for you, and allow you to change those settings with point-and-click convenience.

Make has not evolved to support platforms undergoing evolution. Consider what happens when you: (1) type make debug, and then type make release. Each would require different CFLAGS due to optimizations and level of debug support. In your makefile, you would extract the relevant command and set CFLAGS like so (taken from ESAPI C++ Makefile):

# Makefile
DEBUG_GOALS = $(filter $(MAKECMDGOALS), debug)
ifneq ($(DEBUG_GOALS),)
  WANT_TEST := 0

ifeq ($(WANT_DEBUG),1)
  ESAPI_CFLAGS += -DDEBUG=1 -UNDEBUG -g3 -ggdb -O0

Make will first build the program in a debug configuration for a session under the debugger. When you want a release build, Make will do nothing because it considers everything up to date despite the fact that C{XX}FLAGS have changed. Hence, your program will actually be in a debug configuration and could SIGABRT at runtime because, for example, debug instrumentation is present (assert calls abort() when NDEBUG is not defined).


IDEs and command line tools offer opportunities to tune settings for a project. IDEs usually provide the setting with point-and-click convenience; but you will usually need to verify and override settings from command line tools. For example, some command line configurations tools don't configure securely and don't honor command line settings, so the following might not produce expected results:

$ configure CFLAGS="-g2 -O2 -Wall -fPIE" LDFLAGS="-pie"

The unexpected loss of position independent code or layout randomizations is due to tools not detecting PIE or ALSR and ignoring CFLAGS and LDFLAGS. Because the auto tools don't enable some flags by default and ignore requested settings, you will need to open some of the template files (such as and add the settings by hand to ensure the project is configured to specification.

Its truly unfortunate many projects do not honor a users' preferred settings since it so easy to do. Below is from ESAPI C++ Makefile:

# Merge ESAPI flags with user supplied flags. We perform the extra step to ensure 
# user options follow our options, which should give user option's a preference.

Finally, the problem is not limited to auto tools. Non-auto'd projects, such as GCC and OpenSSL, do the same.

Configuration at the project level presents opportunities to harden the application or library with domain specific knowledge. For example, suppose you are building OpenSSL, and you know (1) SSLv2 is insecure, (2) SSLv3 is insecure, and (3) compression is insecure (among others). In addition, suppose you don't use hardware and engines, and only allow static linking. Given the knowledge and specifications, you would configure the OpenSSL library as follows:

$ Configure darwin64-x86_64-cc -no-hw -no-engines -no-comp -no-shared -no-dso -no-sslv2 -no-sslv3 --openssldir=…

If you think the misconfiguration cannot be found or will be overlooked, then you should rethink your position. Auditing (discussed below) will reveal that compression is enabled, and the following command will bear witness:

$ nm /usr/local/ssl/iphoneos/lib/libcrypto.a 2>/dev/null | egrep -i "(COMP_CTX_new|COMP_CTX_free)"
0000000000000110 T COMP_CTX_free
0000000000000000 T COMP_CTX_new

In fact, any symbol within the OPENSSL_NO_COMP preprocessor macro will bear witness since -no-comp is translated into a CFLAGS define.


The preprocessor is crucial to setting up a project for success. The C committee provided one macro - NDEBUG - and the macro can be used to derive a number of configurations and drive engineering processes. Unfortunately, the committee also left many related items to chance, which has resulted in programmers abusing builtin facilities. This section will help you set up you projects to integrate well with other projects and ensure reliability and security.

There are three topics to discuss when hardening the preprocessor. The first is well defined configurations which produce well defined behaviors, the second is useful behavior from assert, and the third is proper use of macros when integrating vendor code and third party libraries.


To remove ambiguity, you should recognize two configurations: Release and Debug. Release is for production code on live servers, and its behavior is requested via the C/C++ NDEBUG macro. Its also the only macro observed by the C and C++ Committees and Posix. Diametrically opposed to release is Debug. While there is a compelling argument for !defined(NDEBUG), you should have an explicit macro for the configuration and that macro should be DEBUG. This is because vendors and outside libraries use the same (or similar) macro for their configuration. For example, Carnegie Mellon's Mach kernel uses DEBUG, Microsoft's CRT uses _DEBUG, and Wind River Workbench uses DEBUG_MODE.

In addition to NDEBUG (Release) and DEBUG (Debug), you have two additional cross products: both are defined or neither are defined. Defining both should be an error, and defining neither should default to a release configuration. Below is from ESAPI C++ EsapiCommon.h, which is the configuration file used by all source files:

// Only one or the other, but not both
#if (defined(DEBUG) || defined(_DEBUG)) && (defined(NDEBUG) || defined(_NDEBUG))
# error Both DEBUG and NDEBUG are defined.

// The only time we switch to debug is when asked. NDEBUG or {nothing} results
// in release build (fewer surprises at runtime).
#if defined(DEBUG) || defined(_DEBUG)

When DEBUG is in effect, your code should receive full debug instrumentation, including the full force of assertions.


Asserts will help you create self-debugging code. They help you find the point of first failure quickly and easily. Asserts should be used everywhere throughout your program, including parameter validation and return value checking. If you have thorough code coverage, you will spend less time debugging and more time developing because programs will debug themselves.

To use asserts effectively, you should assert everything. That includes parameters upon entering a function, return values from function calls, and any program state. Everywhere you place an if statement for validation or checking, you should have an assert. Everywhere you have an assert for validation or checking, you should have an if statement. They go hand-in-hand.

There is one problem with using asserts - Posix states assert should call abort() if NDEBUG is not defined. When debugging, NDEBUG will never be defined since you want the "program diagnostics" (quote from the Posix description). That makes assert and its accompanying abort() completely useless.

Live hosts running production code should always define NDEBUG (i.e., release configuration), which means they do not assert or auto-abort. Auto-abortion is not acceptable behavior, and anyone who asks for the behavior is completely abusing the functionality of "program diagnostics". If a program wants a core dump, then it should create the dump rather than crashing.


Aborting during a debug session while trying to troubleshoot a problem is utterly useless to the point its almost insulting. The result of "program diagnostics" calling abort() due to standard C/C++ behavior is disuse - developers simply don't use them. Its incredibly bad for the development community because self-debugging programs can help eradicate so many stability problems.

Since self-debugging programs are so powerful, you will have to have to supply your own assert with improved behavior. Your assert will exchange auto-aborting behavior for auto-debugging behavior. With properly instrumented code, you will find the point of first failure in under 5 minutes. The auto-debugging facility will ensure the debugger snaps when a problem is detected.

ESAPI C++ supplies its own assert with the behavior described above. In the code below, ASSERT raises SIGTRAP when in effect or it evaluates to void in other cases.

// A debug assert which should be sprinkled liberally. This assert fires and then continues rather
// than calling abort(). Useful when examining negative test cases from the command line.
#if (defined(ESAPI_BUILD_DEBUG) && defined(ESAPI_OS_STARNIX))
#  define ESAPI_ASSERT1(exp) {                                    \
    if(!(exp)) {                                                  \
      std::ostringstream oss;                                     \
      oss << "Assertion failed: " << (char*)(__FILE__) << "("     \
          << (int)__LINE__ << "): " << (char*)(__func__)          \
          << std::endl;                                           \
      std::cerr << oss.str();                                     \
      raise(SIGTRAP);                                             \
    }                                                             \
#  define ESAPI_ASSERT2(exp, msg) {                               \
    if(!(exp)) {                                                  \
      std::ostringstream oss;                                     \
      oss << "Assertion failed: " << (char*)(__FILE__) << "("     \
          << (int)__LINE__ << "): " << (char*)(__func__)          \
          << ": \"" << (msg) << "\"" << std::endl;                \
      std::cerr << oss.str();                                     \
      raise(SIGTRAP);                                             \
    }                                                             \
#elif (defined(ESAPI_BUILD_DEBUG) && defined(ESAPI_OS_WINDOWS))
#  define ASSERT(exp)             assert(exp)
#  define ESAPI_ASSERT1(exp)      assert(exp)
#  define ESAPI_ASSERT2(exp, msg) assert(exp)
#  define ASSERT(exp)             ((void)(exp))
#  define ESAPI_ASSERT1(exp)      ((void)(exp))
#  define ESAPI_ASSERT2(exp, msg) ((void)(exp))

At program startup, a SIGTRAP handler is installed if one is not provided by another component:

struct DebugTrapHandler
    struct sigaction new_handler, old_handler;

        int ret = 0;

        ret = sigaction (SIGTRAP, NULL, &old_handler);
        if (ret != 0) break; // Failed

        // Don't step on another's handler
        if (old_handler.sa_handler != NULL) break;

        new_handler.sa_handler = &DebugTrapHandler::NullHandler;
        new_handler.sa_flags = 0;

        ret = sigemptyset (&new_handler.sa_mask);
        if (ret != 0) break; // Failed

        ret = sigaction (SIGTRAP, &new_handler, NULL);
        if (ret != 0) break; // Failed

      } while(0);

  static void NullHandler(int /*unused*/) { }


// We specify a relatively low priority, to make sure we run before other CTORs
static const DebugTrapHandler g_dummyHandler __attribute__ ((init_priority (110)));

On a Windows platform, you would call _set_invalid_parameter_handler (and possibly set_unexpected or set_terminate) to install a new handler.

Additional Macros

Additional macros include any macros needed to integrate properly and securely. It includes integrating the program with the platform (for example MFC or Cocoa/CocoaTouch) and libraries (for example, Crypto++ or OpenSSL). It can be a challenge because you have to have proficiency with your platform and all included libraries and frameworks.

Its nearly impossible to enumerate all the possible combinations for all platforms and libraries, but the list below highlights the level of detail you will need when integrating.

In addition to what you should define, defining some macros and undefining others should trigger a security related defect. For example, -U_FORTIFY_SOURCES on Linux and _CRT_SECURE_NO_WARNINGS=1 on Windows.

Platform/Library Debug Release
Table 1: Additional Platform/Library Macros
Android (4.2 and above) _FORTIFY_SOURCE=1

#define NSLog(...) (define to nothing, preempt ASL)

Microsoft _DEBUG=1








SQLCipher Remove NDEBUG from Debug builds (Xcode)



a Be careful with _GLIBCXX_DEBUG when using pre-compiled libraries such as Boost from a distribution. There are ABI incompatibilities, and the result will likely be a crash. You will have to compile Boost with _GLIBCXX_DEBUG or omit _GLIBCXX_DEBUG.

b SQLite secure deletion zeroizes memory on destruction. Define as required, and always define in US Federal since zeroization is required for FIPS 140-2, Level 1.

c N is 0644 by default, which means everyone has some access.

d Force temporary tables into memory (no unencrypted data to disk).