Guidelines for writing trusted software

Trusting public library routines

While commands obtain their privilege and special access through kernel mechanisms, library routines obtain their access rights and privileges from the commands that call them. Additionally, library routines usually serve a single purpose instead of offering a spectrum of options. These differences dictate the rules for library routines described below.


The most important aspect of trusting a library routine is the documentation used by a programmer to decide how and when that routine should be used. This description should include basic elements such as the interface to the routine, what the routine does, and what error conditions might be encountered by the routine. Additionally, any privileged routine should have a description of the privileges it can use and the reason it might use each privilege. Also, any interesting side effects of the routine should be detailed. These include opening, closing, deleting or creating files, executing commands, setting global variables, allocating heap storage, changing process attributes, sending signals, or any other behavior that is not immediately obvious to the reader.

Finally, the description should include a section describing any non-trusted uses of the routine. If, for example, a user can cause the routine to fill past the end of a buffer by feeding it too much data, this possibility should be stated in the description. By supplying as much information as possible to the programmer who will use the routine, the documenter allows the programmer to choose routines wisely and use them correctly.

Privilege and special access

Public libraries provide many useful functions, such as file IO buffering, memory allocation, and mathematical processing. These routines are intended for use by a wide variety of applications, with a wide variety of needs and goals.

A library routine, therefore, should not try to guess the intent of the calling program. It should simply do its job and return. The rule for public library routines and privilege or special access is: no public routine should change the privilege or access environment of a process unless that is its primary purpose. There should be no exceptions to this rule, since a trusted command must always be in full control of its privileges and special access rights.

Reporting errors

The only way a command can detect and recover from an error is to use the information reported by the system calls and library routines that encountered the error. A library routine, therefore, must report every possible error case as informatively as possible to the calling program. Where several different failure modes are possible, each should be reported uniquely so that the calling program can take any necessary corrective action or can restore system integrity before exiting. It is not correct for a library routine to cause a process to exit as the result of an error, since the calling program may need to clean up before exiting. The rule is: library routines must report all errors as accurately as possible.

Handling sensitive data

Library routines sometimes need to retrieve sensitive data for a trusted command. The designer of such routines must be aware of the risk that this data might be accidentally disclosed in a core file or some other unprotected data object. For a more detailed discussion of this problem and its solutions, see the section on sensitive data in ``Writing trusted commands''.

Executing commands

Whenever a library routine executes a shell level command it must take great care to ensure that the command is executed correctly and with the right parameters. For library routines that handle requests to execute a command this requirement is limited to making sure the request is followed exactly as issued. Library routines (like system or popen) that execute commands independently of the specific request must use full pathnames, and be certain that the commands they execute are themselves trusted.

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