Safe use of unsafe.Pointer

Package unsafe provides an escape hatch from Go’s type system, enabling interactions with low-level and system call APIs, in a manner similar to C programs. However, unsafe has several rules which must be followed in order to perform these interactions in a sane way. It’s easy to make subtle mistakes when writing unsafe code , but these mistakes can often be avoided.

This blog post will introduce some of the current and upcoming Go tooling that can verify safe usage of the unsafe.Pointer type in your Go programs. If you have not worked with unsafe before, I recommend reading my previous Gopher Academy Advent series blog on the topic.

Extra care and caution must be taken whenever introducing unsafe to a code base, but these diagnostic tools can help you solve problems before they lead to a major bug or a possible security flaw in your application.

Compile-time verification with go vet

For several years now, the go vet tool has had the ability to check for invalid conversions between the unsafe.Pointer and uintptr types.

Let’s take a look at an example program. Suppose we would like to use pointer arithmetic to iterate over and print each element of an array:

package main

import (
    "fmt"
    "unsafe"
)

func main() {
    // An array of contiguous uint32 values stored in memory.
    arr := []uint32{1, 2, 3}

    // The number of bytes each uint32 occupies: 4.
    const size = unsafe.Sizeof(uint32(0))

    // Take the initial memory address of the array and begin iteration.
    p := uintptr(unsafe.Pointer(&arr[0]))
    for i := 0; i < len(arr); i++ {
        // Print the integer that resides at the current address and then
        // increment the pointer to the next value in the array.
        fmt.Printf("%d ", (*(*uint32)(unsafe.Pointer(p))))
        p += size
    }
}

At first glance, this program appears to work as expected, and we can see each of the array’s elements printed to our terminal:

$ go run main.go 
1 2 3

However, there is a subtle flaw in this program. What does go vet have to say?

$ go vet .
# github.com/mdlayher/example
./main.go:20:33: possible misuse of unsafe.Pointer

In order to understand this error, we must consult the rules of the unsafe.Pointer type:

Converting a Pointer to a uintptr produces the memory address of the value pointed at, as an integer. The usual use for such a uintptr is to print it.
Conversion of a uintptr back to Pointer is not valid in general.
A uintptr is an integer, not a reference. Converting a Pointer to a uintptr creates an integer value with no pointer semantics. Even if a uintptr holds the address of some object, the garbage collector will not update that uintptr’s value if the object moves, nor will that uintptr keep the object from being reclaimed.

We can isolate the offending portion of our program as follows:

p := uintptr(unsafe.Pointer(&arr[0]))

// What happens if there's a garbage collection here?
fmt.Printf("%d ", (*(*uint32)(unsafe.Pointer(p))))

Because we store the uintptr value in p but do not immediately make use of that value, it’s possible that when a garbage collection occurs, the address (now stored in p as a uintptr integer) will no longer be valid!

Let’s assume this scenario has occurred and that p no longer points at a uint32 . Perhaps when we reinterpret p as a pointer, the memory pointed at is now being used to store a user’s authentication credentials or a TLS private key. We’ve introduced a potential security flaw in our application and could easily leak sensitive material to an attacker through a normal channel such as stdout or an HTTP API’s response body.

In effect, once we’ve converted an unsafe.Pointer to uintptr , we cannot safely convert it back to unsafe.Pointer , with the exception of one special case:

If p points into an allocated object, it can be advanced through the object by conversion to uintptr, addition of an offset, and conversion back to Pointer.

In order to perform this pointer arithmetic iteration logic safely, we must perform the type conversions and pointer arithmetic all at once:

package main

import (
    "fmt"
    "unsafe"
)

func main() {
    // An array of contiguous uint32 values stored in memory.
    arr := []uint32{1, 2, 3}

    // The number of bytes each uint32 occupies: 4.
    const size = unsafe.Sizeof(uint32(0))

    for i := 0; i < len(arr); i++ {
        // Print an integer to the screen by:
        //   - taking the address of the first element of the array
        //   - applying an offset of (i * 4) bytes to advance into the array
        //   - converting the uintptr back to *uint32 and dereferencing it to
        //     print the value
        fmt.Printf("%d ", *(*uint32)(unsafe.Pointer(
            uintptr(unsafe.Pointer(&arr[0])) + (uintptr(i) * size),
        )))
    }
}

This program produces the same result as before, but is now considered valid by go vet as well!

$ go run main.go 
1 2 3 
$ go vet .

I don’t recommend using pointer arithmetic for iteration logic in this way, but it’s excellent that Go provides this escape hatch (and tooling for using it safely!) when it is truly needed.

Run-time verification with the Go compiler’s checkptr debugging flag

The Go compiler recently gained support for a new debugging flag which can instrument uses of unsafe.Pointer to detect invalid usage patterns at runtime. As of Go 1.13, this feature is unreleased, but can be used by installing Go from tip:

$ go get golang.org/dl/gotip
go: finding golang.org/dl latest
...
$ gotip download
Updating the go development tree...
...
Success. You may now run 'gotip'!
$ gotip version
go version devel +8054b13 Thu Nov 28 15:16:27 2019 +0000 linux/amd64

Let’s review another example. Suppose we are passing a Go structure to a Linux kernel API which would typically accept a C union. One pattern for doing this is to have an overarching Go structure which contains a raw byte array (mimicking a C union), and then to create typed variants for possible argument combinations.

package main

import (
    "fmt"
    "unsafe"
)

// one is a typed Go structure containing structured data to pass to the kernel.
type one struct{ v uint64 }

// two mimics a C union type which passes a blob of data to the kernel.
type two struct{ b [32]byte }

func main() {
    // Suppose we want to send the contents of a to the kernel as raw bytes.
    in := one{v: 0xff}
    out := (*two)(unsafe.Pointer(&in))

    // Assume the kernel will only access the first 8 bytes. But what is stored
    // in the remaining 24 bytes?
    fmt.Printf("%#v\n", out.b[0:8])
}

When we run this program on a stable version of Go (as of Go 1.13.4), we can see that the first 8 bytes of the array contain our uint64 data in its native endian format (little endian on my machine):

$ go run main.go
[]byte{0xff, 0x0, 0x0, 0x0, 0x0, 0x0, 0x0, 0x0}

However, it turns out there is an issue with this program as well. If we attempt to run the program on Go tip with the checkptr debug flag, we will see:

$ gotip run -gcflags=all=-d=checkptr main.go 
panic: runtime error: unsafe pointer conversion

goroutine 1 [running]:
main.main()
        /home/matt/src/github.com/mdlayher/example/main.go:17 +0x60
exit status 2

This check is still quite new and as such does not provide much information beyond the “unsafe pointer conversion” panic message and a stack trace. But the stack trace does at least provide a hint that line 17 is suspect.

By casting a smaller structure into a larger one, we enable reading arbitrary memory beyond the end of the smaller structure’s data! This is another way that careless use of unsafe could result in a security vulnerability in your application.

In order to perform this operation safely, we have to make sure that we initialize the “union” structure first before copying data into it, so we can ensure that arbitrary memory is not accessed:

package main

import (
    "fmt"
    "unsafe"
)

// one is a typed Go structure containing structured data to pass to the kernel.
type one struct{ v uint64 }

// two mimics a C union type which passes a blob of data to the kernel.
type two struct{ b [32]byte }

// newTwo safely produces a two structure from an input one.
func newTwo(in one) *two {
    // Initialize out and its array.
    var out two

    // Explicitly copy the contents of in into out by casting both into byte
    // arrays and then slicing the arrays. This will produce the correct packed
    // union structure, without relying on unsafe casting to a smaller type of a
    // larger type.
    copy(
        (*(*[unsafe.Sizeof(two{})]byte)(unsafe.Pointer(&out)))[:],
        (*(*[unsafe.Sizeof(one{})]byte)(unsafe.Pointer(&in)))[:],
    )

    return &out
}

func main() {
    // All is well! The two structure is appropriately initialized.
    out := newTwo(one{v: 0xff})

    fmt.Printf("%#v\n", out.b[:8])
}

We can now run our updated program with the same flags as before, and we will see that the issue has been resolved:

$ gotip run -gcflags=all=-d=checkptr main.go 
[]byte{0xff, 0x0, 0x0, 0x0, 0x0, 0x0, 0x0, 0x0}

By removing the slicing operation from the fmt.Printf call, we can verify that the remainder of the byte array has been initialized to 0 bytes:

[32]uint8{
	0xff, 0x0, 0x0, 0x0, 0x0, 0x0, 0x0, 0x0,
	0x0, 0x0, 0x0, 0x0, 0x0, 0x0, 0x0, 0x0,
	0x0, 0x0, 0x0, 0x0, 0x0, 0x0, 0x0, 0x0,
	0x0, 0x0, 0x0, 0x0, 0x0, 0x0, 0x0, 0x0,
}

This is a very easy mistake to make, and in fact, I recently had to fix this exact issue in code I wrote for the tests in x/sys/unix ! I’ve written a fair amount of unsafe code in Go, but even veteran programmers can easily make mistakes. This is why these types of diagnostic tools are so important!

Conclusion

Package unsafe is a very powerful tool with a razor-sharp edge, but it should not be feared. When interacting with Linux kernel system call APIs, it is often necessary to resort to unsafe code. Making effective use of tools such as go vet and the checkptr compiler debugging flag is crucial in order to ensure safety in your applications.

If you work with unsafe code on a regular basis, I highly recommend joining the #darkarts channel on Gophers Slack . There are a lot of veterans in that channel who have helped me learn how to make effective use of unsafe in my own applications.

If you have any questions, feel free to contact me! I’m mdlayher on Gophers Slack , GitHub and Twitter .

Special thanks to:

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