Why the White House is Asking Programmers to Avoid C & C++ 

Posted 08/03/24

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Quick overview: The White House recommends switching from C and C++ to memory-safe languages like Rust, Go, or Python to enhance cybersecurity.

The White House has released a strong recommendation for software developers to move away from using C and C++, instead adopting memory-safe languages. There’s a major reason behind this push: rampant cybersecurity threats that exploit the vulnerabilities inherent in these older languages.

The Security Risks of C and C++

While C and C++ remain incredibly popular in many applications, their power comes with a significant cost. These languages give developers direct control over memory allocation and management. This control is vital for performance but can be a security nightmare. Errors like buffer overflows and use-after-free bugs are notoriously common in C and C++ programs, and these often provide the entry point for malicious attacks.

Studies repeatedly show that a majority of security vulnerabilities stem from memory management errors. Microsoft alone found 70% of vulnerabilities in their products could be traced to weaknesses in C and C++ code.

Memory-Safe Languages: Shifting the Burden

Languages like Rust, Go, Python, and others are considered memory-safe. They feature built-in protections like automatic garbage collection and bounds checking. These safeguards eliminate entire classes of potential memory-related exploits. By using memory-safe languages, developers shift responsibility for preventing many vulnerabilities to the language itself, instead of relying solely on their error-prone coding.

Why Not Just Drop C and C++?

If memory-safe languages are superior, why the continued reliance on C and C++? There are a few key reasons:

  • Legacy Code: Vast amounts of critical infrastructure are built on C and C++. Rewriting everything would be costly and time-consuming.
  • Performance: C and C++ are often favored for applications where speed is paramount, like game engines and operating systems.
  • Inertia: Many developers are deeply familiar with C and C++. Learning new languages takes time and investment.
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Finding a New Balance

The White House isn’t suggesting a complete abandonment of C and C++. Instead, the recommendation encourages using these powerful languages more selectively. The focus should be on:

  • New Development: Prioritizing memory-safe languages for new projects whenever possible.
  • Refactoring: Gradually replacing or refactoring critical components of existing C/C++ code with memory-safe alternatives.
  • Educating Developers: Promoting the advantages of memory-safe languages and providing resources for upskilling

Challenges of Transitioning Away from C and C++

The White House’s call for change, while vital for cybersecurity, isn’t without hurdles:

  • The Legacy Problem: Systems from power grids to medical devices rely on C/C++ code. Completely replacing these systems becomes monumentally expensive, and risky, and could even introduce new vulnerabilities during the transition.
  • Performance Overhead: Memory-safe languages sometimes carry a performance cost due to their safeguards. This is less true with newer languages like Rust but can be a concern in real-time systems or high-performance computing.
  • Developer Expertise: While the community around memory-safe languages is growing, there’s still a larger base of experienced C/C++ programmers. Training or hiring for alternative languages adds to the cost of change.
  • Ecosystem and Libraries The support around C and C++ built up over decades, can be far more comprehensive than that for newer languages. This makes rewriting existing components or finding pre-built solutions more difficult.

Mitigating Challenges and Promoting Adoption of Memory-Safe Languages

The transition to memory-safe development isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition. Here are strategies for success:

  • Prioritize New Projects: When building greenfield applications, default to memory-safe languages whenever possible. This reduces future security burdens from the start.
  • Identify Critical Components: Audit existing C/C++ codebases to find the most sensitive sections – those handling user data, authentication, or interfacing with external networks. Target these for refactoring or replacement.
  • Incremental Adoption: Rewriting entire systems is impractical. Look for opportunities to add components or services developed in memory-safe languages and interface them with legacy code.
  • Hybrid Solutions: Sometimes, critical performance bottlenecks within a mostly safe application need to be written in C/C++. Extra care in developing, testing, and isolating these sections becomes essential.
  • Government and Industry Collaboration: Funding for open-source development, code audits, and the creation of secure libraries in memory-safe languages accelerates the transition process.
  • Training and Education: Promote learning pathways for both new and experienced developers to gain proficiency in memory-safe languages.
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Final Word 

The White House’s guidance is a stark reminder that our increasingly connected world demands a proactive cybersecurity approach. While the shift towards memory-safe languages presents challenges, it’s an investment in a more secure future. Developers, organizations, and the tech industry broadly need to embrace these changes with a collaborative spirit. By prioritizing secure coding practices, supporting education and training, and incrementally transitioning to memory-safe languages, we can create a digital infrastructure far more resistant to cyber-attacks.

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