O Safeguarding Data in Memory

An essential part of application security is protecting data in memory. Many types of vulnerabilities and exploits that involve reading and/or modifying sensitive data in memory exist. However, adhering to several high-level principles will make the application and its associated data more secure.

First, only keep sensitive data in memory for as long as necessary. Memory should not be a quick reference repository for sensitive data items. Securely delete it by overwriting it with random data as soon as possible. This narrows the window of opportunity for attackers to obtain such data or notice that it was even there in the first place.

Second, ensure that sensitive data never gets written to disk, either in a page file or in some kind of crash dump. Both are searchable and could possibly be used as a resource for malicious individuals or programs in their attempt to glean sensitive artifacts. Allowing the data to exist in a dump file is a particularly bad idea as it can be available long term.

Third, regardless of the length of time the data is kept in memory, or written to a page file or crash dump, sensitive data should, if possible, never be stored unencrypted. Always attempt to use cryptographic checksums of the data instead of the plain-text equivalent. This is particularly true with passwords.

Fourth, ensure allocation of the proper amount of memory needed, preferably in one sufficiently sized chunk, but as small as possible. Then, lock that entire chunk of memory, assuming it fits into a single page.

Fifth, always verify that the data received by the application is the right length and the expected datatype. Never allow an application to accept and process data without first vetting it.

Finally, if data in the buffer is continually accessed from the moment it is placed in memory until it is erased, the risk will be minimized. Moreover, standard paging rules will very likely keep the page in question from being written to disk.

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