How safe are H.264 streams from exploits? More exactly, are the consumer-grade H.264 codes generally "safe"?

I am currently gratuitously transcoding A/V files to avoid being exposed to possible exploits. This was after I noticed that some older video files will have very curious errors in them, errors that make me wonder if they are indeed exploit attempts ("strange, why's there a STRING in the middle of the stream?"). I do know that in some older formats/codecs, there were indeed past exploits.

Since H.264 codecs are a bit more modern than some of the older ones, I would like to know if such an elementary stream is safe in the "usual suspect" players: Windows Media, VLC, Quicktime and the major browsers (I use Chrome and Firefox, but should include Safari and InternetExploder just in case).

In that case, if the video is an H.264 elementary stream, I would not need to do a sanitization transcode step, and just create a new MP4 container. This would at least remove any container-based exploits. In other words:

ffmpeg -i <file> -c copy newcontainer.mp4

(or -c:v copy, and transcode the audio, etc).

Clearly, white room safety would require transcoding everything, but that's getting all Felix Unger.

1 Answer 1


All anyone might be able to say is that there are no known holes in the various players. (I don't know if that's true, just that it's impossible to know that there are no undiscovered bugs in a complex piece of code.) H.264 streams are complex enough to have lots of corner cases. They're parsed with speed-optimized code written in C and assembly.

You're quite correct that this is a HUGE attack surface, esp. when you allow arbitrary input formats, including ones with crufty old demuxers / decoders written by some random guy a long time ago, who might or might not have had security in mind. This article about ffmpeg security fixes is quite interesting.

re: ascii strings inside video files. That's not uncommon at all. x264 output embeds a string like

x264 - core 142 r2455 021c0dc - H.264/MPEG-4 AVC codec - Copyleft 2003-2014 - http://www.videolan.org/x264.html - options: cabac=1 ref=6 deblock=1:2:2 analyse=0x3:0x133 me=umh subme=10 psy=1 psy_rd=1.00:0.50 mixed_ref=1 me_range=24 chroma_me=1 trellis=2 8x8dct=1 cqm=0 deadzone=21,11 fast_pskip=1 chroma_qp_offset=-4 threads=6 lookahead_threads=1 sliced_threads=0 nr=200 decimate=1 interlaced=0 bluray_compat=0 constrained_intra=0 bframes=6 b_pyramid=2 b_adapt=2 b_bias=0 direct=3 weightb=1 open_gop=0 weightp=2 keyint=250 keyint_min=25 scenecut=40 intra_refresh=0 rc_lookahead=60 rc=crf mbtree=1 crf=25.0 qcomp=0.60 qpmin=0 qpmax=69 qpstep=4 ip_ratio=1.40 aq=1:0.50

And of course strings will find lots of sequences of characters in the ascii range, just by random chance. Some containers use sequences of ascii characters as the magic values to indicate what type of object something is. e.g. mp4 has "moov", "mdat", and other atoms. If you can pick any sequence of 4 bytes for your format, you might as well pick ASCII characters to make things easier to debug.

I think transcoding all incoming video would incur a HUGE quality / CPU / storage overhead. Transcoding with nightly builds of ffmpeg would potentially shield you from known bugs in the typically old version of ffmpeg in VLC stable releases, and whatever bugs are in closed source stuff from Microsoft and Apple.

Remuxing is not a bad compromise.

There's also a balance between destroying metadata vs. passing through more potentially harmful stuff. (e.g. chapters, subtitles, ...)

If I were actually doing this, I'd probably store my output in mkv files. Using a different container is maybe better insurance against any weirdness from an input mp4 getting passed on to an output mp4.

Also, if you're actually doing this, I guess you'd run ffmpeg (or MP4Box for just mp4->mp4 remuxing) in a sandbox chroot or vm, or even just as an un-privileged user, so successful exploits are contained.

  • Thank you for the excellent answer! So if I were looking to sanitize the container, an MP4->MKV->MP4 would be superior to a straight MP4->MP4 recontainerization? Commented Mar 7, 2015 at 23:28
  • Probably no better than MP4->MP4 remuxing. MP4->MKV MIGHT turn a buffer overflow -> remote code execution into just a crash in chapter parsing code, for example. (Or it might not, remuxing won't always help.) Putting it back into MP4 might line things up the same way as the original container. If you really still want the output to be MP4, mp4->mp4 remux is probably the same as mp4->mkv->mp4. And you could do it with MP4Box or something, instead of ffmpeg. Commented Mar 14, 2015 at 18:36

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