What is race condition vulnerability?
A race condition is a type of software error that occurs when the order in which things happen is not considered properly by the programmer running code on an application. Race conditions often occur in parallel processes. However, they can occur within one program.
A race condition vulnerability typically occurs when your application has access to the same shared data and attempts to change variables within it simultaneously.
Applications can become vulnerable to race conditions if they interact with other applications that use parallel processing or multiple threads. Moreover, the application itself can be vulnerable if it leverages multi-threaded processing — and most do for speed.
In this article, we'll explain race condition vulnerabilities, how they work, and how they can impact your organization's security posture.
How does race condition vulnerability work?
Click the video for a quick tutorial.
Race conditions arise when multiple threads of execution access shared memory locations and modify them without proper synchronization.
These shared memory accesses may happen concurrently, for example, if two different processes execute on separate processors. They can also occur asynchronously, like when a thread sleeps for some time.
If shared memory locations are not adequately secured, race conditions can occur. A typical example of a race condition is when two threads access a variable that holds the value 1 in its first write but changes to 0 immediately afterward. This can lead to:
The threads may both read the value 1, but one line may write it back to 0 before the other can react. This can lead to unpredictable results and is a prime example of how unsynchronized accesses cause race conditions to shared memory locations.
A common cause of race conditions is when a program uses static variables. In this case, multiple threads may access the same static variable without proper synchronization. When accessing shared memory locations without appropriate synchronization, it’s critical to ensure that only one line can utilize them at a time.
Key examples of race condition vulnerability:
Wind River (CVE-2019-12263)
Impact of race condition vulnerability
The overall impact of a race condition vulnerability can vary greatly when affecting various programs and applications. This is because most modern programs and applications rely on multi-threaded processing to execute many actions at once.
The multi-threaded approach allows applications to run faster but not as seamlessly as often promised – that’s often due to developers failing to consider multi-threading when coding apps.
When there’s a race condition vulnerability, a program can crash or produce unexpected results. Also, there can be errors if more than one thread attempts to access data all at once.
To illustrate, say a SQL system is conducting an update to a database. It usually creates a temporary file that gets used to replace the information in the database.
When a malicious threat actor plans their attack well, they can alter the temporary file or replace it with one of their own. Suddenly, they have direct access to alter their admin privileges in the system.
Once that’s done, they can cause a data breach and launch a multitude of attacks, including denial-of-service (DoS) attacks.
A successfully exploited race condition vulnerability can grant cybercriminals direct access to secured areas of applications. In the example discussed above, once the attacker replaces the database update with their own data set, they can log in as an administrator and steal whatever information they want from the database.
How to mitigate race condition vulnerabilities
The most effective way to mitigate or eliminate exposure to race condition vulnerabilities is through regular security updates. Automox recommends that you take these four steps to effectively mitigate exposure to these vulnerabilities:
1. Stay up-to-date on the latest vulnerabilities
First, make sure you have robust vulnerability detection and scanning capabilities to identify, categorize and manage incoming vulnerabilities. Such vulnerabilities can include unsecured system configurations or missing patches, as well as other security-related updates in the systems connected to the enterprise network directly – remotely or in the cloud.
There are many powerful vulnerability scanning vendors to choose from. Make sure they’re integrated within your tech stack and work with your patch solution, such as Automox, to quickly take action against threats whether that’s a patch, a system reconfiguration, or the removal of vulnerable software.
2. Use a single solution for patching
When you have multiple OSes and third-party software installed across on-prem, remote, and devices in the cloud, you can see how the challenge of patching can quickly spiral. Often companies use several patching tools and ad-hoc manual workarounds to patch their environments, but adding more tools to a problem only compounds the issue.
To resolve this, we recommend keeping it simple with a single cloud-based solution that can address every endpoint, regardless of its OS or where it resides.
With a cloud-hosted platform, you can eliminate maintenance and VPN requirements while decommissioning or repurposing unnecessary hardware investments and resources. This frees up your dollars and technicians’ cycles for more high-value work.
Support for Windows, macOS, and Linux can also offer the same seamless experience for all OS types. And that enables you to patch all devices in your clients’ environments – from a single pane of glass.
3. Keep an up-to-date inventory of assets
You can’t fix what you can’t see. As previously highlighted, more and more endpoints are either located in the cloud or using cloud services to access data. IT departments require visibility across their environment to accurately assess their security posture and risk level.
Find tools that promote endpoint visibility and support a single source of truth. The ability to see all of your servers and workstations in one dashboard reduces the time spent assessing patch status, improves your security position, and enables accurate reporting to executives and stakeholders.
4. Automate where you can
Automation won’t just keep your IT staff sane, but it will improve user productivity and maintain your organization's ability to pivot quickly in an ever-evolving environment.
From onboarding and de-provisioning users to patching devices across your multi-cloud environments or deploying software, automation holds the key to driving your dynamic cloud infrastructure forward.