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Null dereference

The dangers of accessing null objects


Null dereference: the basics

What is null dereference?

A null dereference is a general term that refers to the act of trying to access or dereference an object reference that has a null value. This can occur in various programming languages and it can cause the program to crash or behave unexpectedly, potentially leading to security issues.

A null pointer dereference, on the other hand, is a specific type of null dereference that occurs when you try to access an object reference that has a null value in a programming language that uses pointers. Pointers are variables that store the memory address of an object, and a null pointer dereference occurs when you try to access an object at a memory address that is null.

In languages that use pointers, such as C and C++, null pointer dereferences can lead to program crashes and other unpredictable behavior. In languages that do not use pointers, such as Java and Python, null dereferences may not cause the program to crash, but can still lead to runtime errors and other unexpected behavior.

Null dereference vulnerabilities are often the result of programming errors, such as using uninitialized pointers or failing to check for null values before accessing them. These vulnerabilities can be difficult to detect and prevent, but they can be addressed through careful programming practices and regular testing.

About this lesson

In this lesson, you will learn about vulnerabilities stemming from null dereferencing and how to protect your applications against them. We’ll look at how a vulnerable application can be attacked and brought down. After that, we’ll look under the hood at the code that made this possible. We will then update the code to fix the vulnerability.


Top Snyk Vuln

The top occurrence Snyk found in 2022 was CVE-2020-29652 in golang.org/x/crypto/ssh. In this case, a NULL pointer dereference allows remote attackers to cause a denial of service against SSH servers.

Null pointer dereference in action

Marc is curious and he is learning a lot of development and security. He recently read about null dereference and wants to see if he can find this vulnerability in the wild!

Null dereference vulnerability

  • STEP 1
  • STEP 2
  • STEP 3
  • STEP 4
  • STEP 5

Setting the stage

Marc just started web dev as part of his schooling. He downloaded his favorite IDE and a few extensions. Maybe he'll test out some vulnerabilities.


Kernel panic

In some systems, like Linux, a null pointer dereference can be used to trigger a kernel panic, which is a serious system error that causes the operating system to stop functioning and can lead to data loss. In the example above, the invalid POST data just caused a segmentation fault, and the operating system was just fine.

Null pointer dereference under the hood

What just happened?

What you just witnessed is a classic example of a null pointer dereference vulnerability.

The extension back-end, specifically the review code, did not check the value of a pointer before dereferencing it.

Let’s take a look at the code:

Okay, that's a lot of code. Let's try to break this down further.

The endpoint expects a JSON field named stars and assigns this value to the star's pointer that it created before parsing the JSON. Then after parsing the JSON, it returns a message with the review variable being dereferenced.

Seems right, doesn’t it?

Let's debug this code in the context of Marc’s scenario, where a POST request was sent without POST (JSON) data.

The handle_post function receives a request and checks if it is for the /review endpoint

The stars variable is only assigned a non-null value when there is a valid JSON structure, but it is dereferenced anyway. This makes the code susceptible to a null pointer dereference vulnerability, which Marc triggered by just poking around.

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Null pointer dereference mitigation

Preventing null pointer dereferences is often very simple. All that was missing in the review code was a check to see if the stars variable was still pointing to null or not:

Note that this check should go right after the JSON parsing and extraction. No other interaction with the variable should go first that can result in a dereference.

Another way to mitigate this vulnerability in the extension review code is to have the requests.extract_json().then().get() handle the JSON values instead of passing a pointer to that function. Even though this works, it is cleaner to work with early returns and validate the stars variable after the JSON parsing.

This way, not too much code becomes nested inside if, else statements.

A general rule of thumb is to sanity-check all user-supplied values and to verify that all return values are non-null before acting on them.

At last, in the example of Marc and the extension review code, a pointer was not even needed. By using a non-pointer integer as stars, the code would have never been exposed to null pointer dereferences.

This can be done in the following way:


Negative ratings

You might have spotted it already; the extension review code is lacking input sanitization. Marc could have influenced the overall rating of the extension more than he should have, by sending a negative rating such as -100 or by giving a positive rating of more than 5.

Keep learning

As mentioned, null dereference was one of the most popular vulnerabilities found by Snyk Open Source. Check out some of these links:


You have taken your first step into learning about null dereference, how it works, and what the impacts are! We hope that you will apply this knowledge to make your applications safer. We'd really appreciate it if you could take a minute to rate how valuable this lesson was for you and provide feedback to help us improve! Also, make sure to check out our lessons on other common vulnerabilities.