All Use-After-Free Vulnerabilities Are Not Created Equal: An Empirical Study on Their Characteristics and Detectability

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Over the past decade, use-after-free (UaF) has become one of the most exploited types of vulnerabilities. To address this increasing threat, we need to advance the defense in multiple directions, such as UaF vulnerability detection, UaF exploit defense, and UaF bug fix. Unfortunately, the intricacy rooted in the temporal nature of UaF vulnerabilities makes it quite challenging to develop effective and efficient defenses in these directions. This calls for an in-depth understanding of real-world UaF characteristics. This paper presents the first comprehensive empirical study of UaF vulnerabilities, with 150 cases randomly sampled from multiple representative software suites, such as Linux kernel, Python, and Mozilla Firefox. We aim to identify the commonalities, root causes, and patterns from realworld UaF bugs, so that the empirical results can provide operational guidance to avoid, detect, deter, and fix UaF vulnerabilities. Our main finding is that the root causes of UaF bugs are diverse, and they are not evenly or equally distributed among different software. This implies that a generic UaF detector/fuzzer is probably not an optimal solution. We further categorize the root causes into 11 patterns, several of which can be translated into simple static detection rules to cover a large portion of the 150 UaF vulnerabilities with high accuracy. Motivated by our findings, we implement 11 checkers in a static bug detector called Palfrey. Running Palfrey on the code of popular open source software, we detect 9 new UaF vulnerabilities. Compared with state-of-the-art static bug detectors, Palfrey outperforms in coverage and accuracy for UaF detection, as well as time and memory overhead.