Ravi Bahethi Explains What Happens in a Buffer Overflow Attack

A buffer overflow is a common software programming weakness that exposes vulnerabilities that outside attackers can exploit in order to gain illicit access to a business’s information systems. In this article, systems engineer and programmer Ravi Bahethi discusses buffer overflow attacks and shares some ways to defend against them.

What is a Buffer Overflow Attack?

A buffer is a memory sector used by computers to contain any sort of data for use by the computer’s processor. A buffer overflow occurs when more data is put into a buffer than it has the capacity to store and manage. When this occurs, excess data can overflow into other memory sectors and corrupt or erase other data the computer has stored for other purposes.

An overflow normally causes a computer to crash; a corrective restart can often deal with overflows. However, these types of crashes can easily create openings for outside attackers to install malicious code into the system or take other destructive actions.

Systems Damage Caused by Buffer Overflow Attacks

Malicious attackers can create buffer overflows by flooding weak programming code with excess input data. They then can overwrite parts of a system’s memory, installing code that alters the execution paths of installed programs. Altered coding can provide unauthorized access to some or all parts of an attacked business’s information systems.

Once malicious code has been installed into a system, finding and repairing the damage can be very difficult and expensive. Different operating systems and programming languages vary greatly in their susceptibility to buffer overflow attacks. C/C++ applications can be especially vulnerable to overflow attacks, as those languages do not have the inherent overflow protections that some other programming languages have.

The Impact of Buffer Overflow Attacks on Business Operations

If an attacker gains access to a business’s information systems through a buffer overflow attack, they can impersonate an authorized user to access stored data, including sensitive financial and customer information. Hackers can change system configurations and files, and can also interfere with devices connected to the computers in the system.

Some hackers are motivated to steal, and others to simply cause damage and system chaos. The loss of customer data or other confidential information can also expose a business to serious legal liability. It is hard to overstate the extent of damage that a business can be exposed to through a buffer overflow attack.

Defending Against Buffer Overflow Attacks

Modern higher-level programming languages and coding techniques have developed heightened security against buffer overflow attacks. Resilient programs constantly run checks of storage values to determine if any overflows have occurred in real-time.

Some programs are designed to close or run in a safe state when a potential attack is detected, cutting off exposed vulnerabilities. Other programming defenses are built into operating systems to mark overflow data to prevent the injection of exploitative or dangerous code.

In any event, the best defense to buffer overflow attacks for your particular system should be designed and implemented by a qualified and experienced systems engineer.

About Ravi Bahethi

Ravi Bahethi specializes in programming and systems engineering and serves both government and industry clients. He is a confident team leader, experienced programmer and systems engineer, and president of Terranet Inc. He is devoted to providing flexible and cost-effective IT solutions to both government and industry clients. When he is not working, Ravi enjoys reading, walking, and playing tennis.