Saturday, 7 July 2012

Item 39: Make defensive copies when needed

One thing that makes Java such a pleasure to use is that it is a safe language. This means that in the absence of native methods it is immune to buffer overruns, array overruns, wild pointers, and other memory corruption errors that plague unsafe languages such as C and C++. In a safe language, it is possible to write classes and to know with certainty that their invariants will remain true, no matter what happens in any other part of the system. This is not possible in languages that treat all of memory as one giant array.

Even in a safe language, you aren’t insulated from other classes without some effort on your part. You must program defensively, with the assumption that clients of your class will do their best to destroy its invariants. It is worth taking the time to write classes that are robust in the face of ill-behaved clients.

For example, consider the following class, which purports to represent an immutable time period:

// Broken "immutable" time period class
public final class Period {
private final Date start;
private final Date end;
* @param start the beginning of the period
* @param end the end of the period; must not precede start
* @throws IllegalArgumentException if start is after end
* @throws NullPointerException if start or end is null
public Period(Date start, Date end) {
if (start.compareTo(end) > 0)
throw new IllegalArgumentException(
start + " after " + end);
this.start = start;
this.end = end;
public Date start() {
return start;
public Date end() {
return end;
... // Remainder omitted

At first glance, this class may appear to be immutable and to enforce the invariant that the start of a period does not follow its end. It is, however, easy to violate this invariant by exploiting the fact that
Date is mutable:

// Attack the internals of a Period instance
Date start = new Date();
Date end = new Date();
Period p = new Period(start, end);
end.setYear(78); // Modifies internals of p!

To protect the internals of a Period instance from this sort of attack, it is essential to make a defensive copy of each mutable parameter to the constructor and to use the copies as components of the Period instance in place of the originals:

// Repaired constructor - makes defensive copies of parameters
public Period(Date start, Date end) {
this.start = new Date(start.getTime());
this.end = new Date(end.getTime());
if (this.start.compareTo(this.end) > 0)
throw new IllegalArgumentException(start +" after "+ end);

With the new constructor in place, the previous attack will have no effect on the Period instance. Note that defensive copies are made before checking the validity of the parameters (Item 38), and the validity check is performed on the copies rather than on the originals. While this may seem unnatural, it is necessary. It protects the class against changes to the parameters from another thread during the “window of vulnerability” between the time the parameters are checked and the time they are copied. (In the computer security community, this is known as a time-of-check/time-of-use or TOCTOU attack [Viega01].)

Note also that we did not use Date’s clone method to make the defensive copies. Because Date is nonfinal, the clone method is not guaranteed to return an object whose class is java.util.Date: it could return an instance of an untrusted subclass specifically designed for malicious mischief. Such a subclass could, for example, record a reference to each instance in a private static list at the time of its creation and allow the attacker to access this list. This would give the attacker free reign over all instances. To prevent this sort of attack, do not use the clone method to make a defensive copy of a parameter whose type is subclassable by untrusted parties.

While the replacement constructor above successfully defends against the previous attack, it is still possible to mutate a Period instance, because its accessors offer access to its mutable internals:

// Second attack on the internals of a Period instance
Date start = new Date();
Date end = new Date();
Period p = new Period(start, end);
p.end().setYear(78); // Modifies internals of p!

To defend against the second attack, merely modify the accessors to return defensive copies of mutable internal fields:

// Repaired accessors - make defensive copies of internal fields
public Date start() {
return new Date(start.getTime());
public Date end() {
return new Date(end.getTime());

With the new constructor and the new accessors in place, Period is truly immutable. No matter how malicious or incompetent a programmer, there is simply no way to violate the invariant that the start of a period does not follow its end.

Defensive copying of parameters is not just for immutable classes. Anytime you write a method or constructor that enters a client-provided object into an internal data structure, think about whether the client-provided object is potentially mutable. If it is, think about whether your class could tolerate a change in the object after it was entered into the data structure. If the answer is no, you must defensively copy the object and enter the copy into the data structure in place of the original.

The same is true for defensive copying of internal components prior to returning them to clients. Whether or not your class is immutable, you should think twice before returning a reference to an internal component that is mutable. Chances are, you should return a defensive copy. Remember that nonzero-length arrays are always mutable. Therefore, you should always make a defensive copy of an internal array before returning it to a client. Alternatively, you could return an immutable view of the array. Both of these techniques are shown in Item 13.

In the case of our Period example, it is worth pointing out that experienced programmers often use the primitive long returned by Date.getTime() as an internal time representation instead of using a Date reference. They do this primarily because Date is mutable.

Defensive copying can have a performance penalty associated with it and isn’t always justified. If a class trusts its caller not to modify an internal component, perhaps because the class and its client are both part of the same package, then it may be appropriate to dispense with defensive copying. Under these circumstances, the class documentation must make it clear that the caller must not modify the affected parameters or return values.

In summary, if a class has mutable components that it gets from or returns to its clients, the class must defensively copy these components. If the cost of the copy would be prohibitive and the class trusts its clients not to modify the components inappropriately, then the defensive copy may be replaced by documentation outlining the client’s responsibility not to modify the affected components.

Reference: Effective Java 2nd Edition by Joshua Bloch