Decoding untrusted data, such as images downloaded from across the web, has a long history of security vulnerabilities. As of 2019, libpng is over 20 years old, and the PNG specification is dated 2003, but that well examined C library is still getting CVE's published in 2019.

Sandboxing and fuzzing can mitigate the danger, but they are reactions to C's fundamental unsafety. Newer programming languages remove entire classes of potential security bugs. Buffer overflows and null pointer dereferences are amongst the most well known.

Less well known are integer overflow bugs. Offset-length pairs, defining a sub-section of a file, are seen in many file formats, such as OpenType fonts and PDF documents. A conscientious C programmer might think to check that a section of a file or a buffer is within bounds by writing if (offset + length < end) before processing that section, but that addition can silently overflow, and a maliciously crafted file might bypass the check.

A variation on this theme is where offset is a pointer, exemplified by capnproto's CVE-2017-7892 and another example. For a pointer-typed offset, witnessing such a vulnerability can depend on both the malicious input itself and the addresses of the memory the software used to process that input. Those addresses can vary from run to run and from system to system, e.g. 32-bit versus 64-bit systems and whether dynamically allocated memory can have sufficiently high address values, and that variability makes it harder to reproduce and to catch such subtle bugs from fuzzing.

In C, some integer overflow is undefined behavior, as per the C99 spec section 3.4.3. In Go, integer overflow is silently ignored. In Rust, integer overflow is checked at run time in debug mode and silently ignored in release mode by default, as the run time performance penalty was deemed too great. In Swift, it‘s a run time error. In D, it’s configurable. Other languages like Python and Haskell can automatically spill into ‘big integers’ larger than 64 bits, but this can have a performance impact when such integers are used in inner loops.

Even if overflow is checked, it is usually checked at run time. Similarly, modern languages do their bounds checking at run time. An expression like a[i] is really if ((0 <= i) && (i < a.length)) { use a[i] } else { throw }, in mangled pseudo-code. Compilers for these languages can often eliminate many of these bounds checks, e.g. if i is an iterator index, but not always all of them.

The run time cost is small, measured in nanoseconds. But if an image decoding library has to eat this cost per pixel, and you have a megapixel image, then nanoseconds become milliseconds, and milliseconds can matter.

In comparison, in Wuffs, all bounds checks and arithmetic overflow checks happen at compile time, with zero run time overhead.