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Subverting Java Access Protection for Unit Testing

by Ross Burton

As everyone knows, unit testing is a great way of ensuring that code actually does what it claims it does, and that over time, as the system changes, it carries on doing the same thing. Formal processes like Extreme Programming (XP) depend heavily on consistent unit testing.

When used together, object-oriented design and comprehensive unit tests can lead to a very clean design, as the test-first methodology implies a user-based interface design, resulting in a public interface that is simple yet efficient.

However, when it comes to testing, sometimes these clean interfaces are not as good as they could be. There are often member variables that the test suite would like to access but that have been scoped private or protected, and making these members public would expose the internals, ruining the clean design. C++ has a way of working around this: by declaring the test suite as a friend class, the access protection is sidelined. In Java, a similar approach can be used by making certain members package scope and putting the test classes into the same package. However, this leads to an unsatisfactory design, as some members are private or protected for good reasons, and then an arbitrary set of members are package scope solely for the current test suite.

However, there is a third option available to Java programmers. The Java Reflection API allows the program to introspect arbitrary classes at runtime, accessing members at will. Most competent Java programmers should know this much, but what many don't know is that the security layer preventing you from accessing private members is only optional, and can be turned off. This allows the system code to be written without explicitly planning the unit tests, and if the unit tests really do need to access a private or protected member, they can.

Example Files

Download java-reflection-examples.tar.gz for the example code found in this article.

Throughout this article, I shall deal with the simplest case: fields. In Java Reflection, fields, methods, and constructors are all treated in a very similar manner, so whenever I say "field" here, it can generally be replaced with "method" and the examples will still work.

Does private Mean Private?

Let's begin by proving to ourselves that a private field is really a private field, and this is not just something we've all been told. First we need a class with some private members; this is the test class I shall use for the following examples.

class FieldTest {
    public String publicString = "Foobar";
    private String privateString = "Hello, World!";

Here we have a simple class with two fields: one private field and one public field. We would assume that arbitrary code can access the public field, but not the private field.

public class Test1 {
  public static void main(String args[]) {
    System.out.println(new FieldTest().publicString);
    System.out.println(new FieldTest().privateString);

When we compile this we get:

Test1.java:4: privateString has private access in FieldTest
    System.out.println(new FieldTest().privateString);
1 error

This shows that private fields really are private fields, as the Java compiler won't allow access to them.

The Class Object

In Java 1.0, the java.lang.Class object was fairly trivial. However, in Java 1.1, the Reflection API was added. A cursory glance at the documentation reveals several interesting methods:

  • getField()
  • getFields()
  • getDeclaredFields()

These methods return Field instances (arrays, in the latter two) that allow us to see the name of the field and its type, and more importantly, get its value.

It seems that if we can get a Class instance, we can call getField() to get a Field instance, which we can use to get at the value we want. And the easiest way to get a Class object for the class Foo is to write Foo.class, a construct called a class literal.

Calling getField() looks like this:

import java.lang.reflect.Field;

public class Test2 {
  public static void main(String args[])
    throws Exception {
    Field f;
    f = FieldTest.class.getField("publicString");
    System.out.println("Public Field: " + f);

    f = FieldTest.class.getField("privateString");
    System.out.println("Private Field: " + f);

Running this gives us:

Public Field: public java.lang.String FieldTest.publicString
Exception in thread "main"
  java.lang.NoSuchFieldException: privateString
	at java.lang.Class.getField0(Class.java:1735)
	at java.lang.Class.getField(Class.java:900)
	at Test2.main(Test2.java:10)

So what happened here? The code managed to get a reference to publicString but failed when trying to get a reference to privateString. The exception thrown was NoSuchFieldException, but I know it does exist, since I created it. However, the fine print in the API documentation for Class.getField() clearly states, "... the specified public member field ...". Time to try getFields() and getDeclaredFields().

Enumerating Fields

At first glance, getFields() and getDeclaredFields() seem very similar. Nevertheless, a closer read of the API documentation reveals that they are very different.

The method getFields() reflects (no pun intended) what the Java programmer conceptually sees when programming: it enumerates all publicly accessible fields in the class and all of its superclasses.

On the other hand, getDeclaredFields() reveals how the class is constructed. It enumerates fields, but only if they are actually declared in that class; any inherited fields are ignored.

The reason for the existence of two methods (instead of a single method that returns all fields, including inherited ones) seems to be so that simple dynamic lookup of public fields can be achieved easily (using getField() and getFields()) and generally does the right thing. If a program wants to see the private fields, it will probably want to handle inherited fields specially (for example, an object-oriented debugger).

Exercising these methods is always a good thing, to check they do what we expect. Here is a test for getFields().

import java.lang.reflect.Field;

public class Test3 {
  public static void main(String args[]) {
    final Field fields[] =
    for (int i = 0; i < fields.length; ++i) {
      System.out.println("Field: " + fields[i]);

The output is rather predicable:

Field: public java.lang.String FieldTest.publicString

Now let's try the same test, but use getDeclaredFields() instead.

import java.lang.reflect.Field;

public class Test4 {
  public static void main(String args[]) {
    final Field fields[] =
    for (int i = 0; i < fields.length; ++i) {
      System.out.println("Field: " + fields[i]);

We hope that this will yield all of the fields, both public and private:

Field: public java.lang.String FieldTest.publicString
Field: private java.lang.String FieldTest.privateString

Life is indeed good. Now that we can enumerate all of the fields in a class, we can get the specific field we are after and hopefully manipulate it however we want.

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