Memory corruption occurs in a computer program when the contents of a memory location are unintentionally modified due to programming errors; this is termed violating memory safety. When the corrupted memory contents are used later in that program, it leads either to program crash or to strange and bizarre program behavior. Nearly 10% of application crashes on Windows systems are due to heap corruption.
Modern programming languages like C and C++ have powerful features of explicit memory management and pointer arithmetic. These features are designed for developing efficient applications and system software. However, using these features incorrectly may lead to memory corruption errors.
Memory corruption is one of the most intractable class of programming errors, for two reasons:
- The source of the memory corruption and its manifestation may be far apart, making it hard to correlate the cause and the effect.
- Symptoms appear under unusual conditions, making it hard to consistently reproduce the error.
Memory corruption errors can be broadly classified into four categories:
- Using uninitialized memory: Contents of uninitialized memory are treated as garbage values. Using such values can lead to unpredictable program behavior.
- Using un-owned memory: It is common to use pointers to access and modify memory. If such a pointer is a null pointer, dangling pointer (pointing to memory that has already been freed), or to a memory location outside of current stack or heap bounds, it is referring to memory that is not then possessed by the program. Using such pointers is a serious programming flaw. Accessing such memory usually causes operating system exceptions, also termed page faults, which most commonly lead to a program crash. Strictly-speaking, if the memory access is a READ the issue may not be considered corruption because the memory is not modified.
- Using beyond allocated memory (buffer overflow): If an array is used in a loop, with incorrect terminating condition, memory beyond the array bounds may be manipulated. Buffer overflow is one of the most common programming flaws exploited by computer viruses causing serious computer security issues (e.g. return-to-libc attack, stack-smashing protection) in widely used programs. One can also incorrectly access the memory before the beginning of a buffer.
- Faulty heap memory management: Memory leaks and freeing non-heap or un-allocated memory are the most frequent errors caused by faulty heap memory management.
- "Application Verifier". MSDN Library. Microsoft. 19 April 2011. Retrieved 4 May 2011.
- "AddressSanitizer, a fast memory error detector". Retrieved 2012-05-13.