What is a Man in the Middle Attack?

  • By David Lukic
  • Published: Jan 31, 2022
  • Last Updated: Mar 18, 2022

 A man-in-the-middle or manipulator-in-the-middle (MITM) attack is a type of cyber-attack where scammers insert themselves in the middle of an online conversation or data transfer to steal sensitive information such as login credentials or bank account information. Often this happens without the end-user realizing that it is happening until it is too late. The stolen data is then used for unauthorized, fraudulent purposes. MITM is a sophisticated cyber scam structure and being aware of how it works will help you spot MITM attempts and stop them before they affect you or your online associates.

Cybercrime is no joke, and not only is it increasingly common, but the types of scams also keep changing and evolving. When cyberattacks are successful, they can wreak havoc on individuals and organizations. Some dangerous and unpleasant consequences of cyber-attacks include:

  • Financial loss, sometimes substantial.
  • Damage to an individual or organization’s reputation.
  • Embarrassment.
  • Temporarily losing access to online platforms.
  • The negative impact to your contacts, such as the receipt of scam emails and potential for becoming victims themselves.
  • Identity theft.

To better understand MITM attacks, it helps to think of them as eavesdropping. Scammers gain access to an online conversation or data transfer. Unbeknownst to you and the recipient of your communication, hackers manipulate the exchange to gain access to sensitive information, which they then use for unauthorized, fraudulent purposes.

Types of MITM Attacks

Intercepting Data

This type of MITM attack involves a hacker intercepting data between a server and client. Both parties are unaware that they are no longer communicating with one another but rather a scammer. If successful in this type of attack, the scammer can steal data from the client and the server and inject false data into the exchange.

Impersonating a Financial Institution to Gain Funds

In this man-in-the-middle attack scenario, scammers trick people into thinking they are their bank by creating a chat service that closely resembles its customer service chat. People seeking support from their financial institution start a valid chat, which a hacker then intercepts. Personal account information and other identifying information, such as dates of birth, are shared and stolen.

Other Hijacking Cyber-attacks

While not strictly MITM attacks, similar hacking strategies exist:

  • Sniffing – hackers use special software to sniff out data coming from and going to a user’s device.\
  • Sidejacking - session cookies are stolen from a user’s device, enabling the hacker to intercept a user session due to unencrypted login information.

How to prevent man-in-the-middle attacks

Strong Encryption on Access Points

Wireless access points need strong encryption to prevent unauthorized users from joining your network just by being physically close. Unfortunately, weaker encryption mechanisms do not always work. Often, an attacker can force their way into a network and start a MITM attack.

Utilizing a Virtual Private Network (VPN)

VPN’s use key-based encryption VPN’s use key-based encryption to keep all secure communication in a subnet. This strategy ensures that even if a hacker is successful in getting into a network, they will not be able to decipher the traffic in the VPN, which renders the data they attempt to steal useless. As a result, many organizations protect their networks using VPNs, especially in this age of remote work.

Making Router Login Credentials Harder to Hack

It is common to discuss login credentials regarding sites we use, but it is essential to consider the security of router login credentials in this context. Many never change the default login that is provided upon installation, but changing the login and password protects you from scammers changing your DNS servers to their malicious servers or infecting your router with malicious software.

The Use of Public Key Pair Based Authentication

To prevent man-in-the-middle attacks, consider implementing public key pair-based authentication, like. RSAs can be used in various layers of the stack. They help ensure accurate and secure coRSAmmunication.

Choosing HTTPS over HTTP

HTTPS helps to secure communication on HTTP sites by using a public-private key exchange. Hackers cannot use the data they may be sniffing if it is on HTTPS. A best practice recommended to website hosts is only to use HTTPS and not provide HTTP alternatives. Users can install browser plugins to enforce always using HTTPS on requests.

Real-Life Examples of MITM Attacks

To better understand how common MITM attacks are and how easy it can be to become a victim of a man-in-the-middle attack, consider the following examples of large-scale MITM attacks.

  • In September of 2021, it was discovered that certain push-button phones sold in Russia were found to contain backdoors and trojans, and the seller recalled the phones sold.
  • In 2019, it was reported that California-based cybersecurity vendor, Fortinet, stripped its software of a flawed crypto cipher and hardcoded cryptographic keys. A weak encryption cipher and static cryptographic keys from three different Fortinet products had left users vulnerable to eavesdropping and manipulated server responses and needed resolution.
  • It was reported in 2019 that UC Browser, a mobile browser developed by Chinese tech firm Alibaba, has been targeted to install software onto the phones of Android users since at least 2016. Google Play Store rules aimed at preventing apps from doing so were unsuccessful in avoiding these fraudulent activities.

While man-in-the-middle attacks are risky and dangerous, cyber security experts are learning more and more about them every day and developing prevention and mitigation strategies that can be used to keep organizations and individuals, and their personal data safe. Knowledge is power, and it is essential to note that information is constantly changing and evolving. Staying abreast of new information about man-in-the-middle attacks, investing in cybersecurity for your home or business, and monitoring the activities on your online accounts can all help you stay safe from MITM attacks.



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