If you pass enough random numbers, eventually one of them will look valid

Raymond Chen

One customer traced a problem they were having to the way they were calling a function similar in spirit to this one:

HGLOBAL CopyClipboardData(UINT cf)
 HGLOBAL hglob = NULL;
 HANDLE h = GetClipboardData(cf);
 if (h) {
  void *p = GlobalLock(h);
  if (p) {
   SIZE_T size = GlobalSize(h);
   hglob = GlobalAlloc(GMEM_FIXED, size);
   if (hglob) {
    CopyMemory(hglob, p, size);
 return hglob;

This function takes a clipboard format and looks for it on the clipboard. If found, it returns a copy of the data.

Looks great, huh?

The problem is that the customer would sometimes call the function as CopyClipboardData(CF_BITMAP). The CF_BITMAP clipboard format stores its contents in the form of a HBITMAP, not an HGLOBAL.

The question from the customer:

This code was written in 2002, and we are wondering why it works “most” of the time and crashes sporadically. We expected that the call to GlobalLock would fail with an invalid parameter error, but sometimes it succeeds, and then when we call GlobalSize we crash. Why does it crash sometimes?

You already know the answer to this. GlobalAlloc works closely with GlobalLock so that GlobalLock can be fast. The bitmap handle returned by GetClipboardData usually fails the quick tests performed by GlobalLock to see whether the parameter is a fixed memory block, in which case the GlobalLock must go down its slow code path, and it is in this slow code path that the function recognizes that the the handle is downright invalid.

But once in a rare while, the bitmap handle happens to smell just enough like a fixed global handle that it passes the tests, and GlobalLock uses its highly optimized code path where it says, “Okay, this is one of those fixed global handles that GlobalAlloc created for me. I can just return the pointer back.” Result: The call to GlobalLock succeeds (garbage in, garbage out), and then you crash in the GlobalSize function where it tries to use the HBITMAP as if it were a HGLOBAL and access some of the memory block metadata, which isn’t there since the handle isn’t valid after all.

The bitmap handle is basically a random number from the global heap’s point of view, since it’s just some number that some other component made up. It’s not a global handle. If you generate enough random numbers, eventually one of them will look like a valid parameter.


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