What Are the Risks of Man-in-the-Middle Attacks?

Enterprises and individuals face a wide range of ever-evolving security threats that target their digital information. A man-in-the-middle (MITM) attack — also referred to as a manipulator-in-the-middle attack — is a sophisticated cyberattack in which a hacker stealthily places themselves in the middle of a data transfer or communication between two parties.

As an example, a hacker sends a carefully crafted email that induces a customer to click on a link that takes them to a fake website resembling a popular online store. The customer believes that they are interacting with the retailer, but the hacker is actually controlling the interaction to steal personal information, such as the customer’s login credentials. MITM attacks have been used to acquire credit card details, steal funds in bank accounts, access sensitive business information, and disrupt business operations.

Let’s take a closer look at this cyber threat, as well as how to recognize and prevent MITM attacks.

What Are MITM Attacks?

An MITM attack intercepts communication between two parties to gather or alter data, typically for financial gain. Its distinctive characteristic is that a hacker successfully deceives both a user’s device and the website or server that the user wants to access. Both systems are unaware that someone is recording, decrypting, and perhaps even altering the data transmitted between the two parties. MITM attacks often target banks, e-commerce websites, and other websites that store potentially valuable personal information.

This type of attack is often accomplished by exploiting an unsecured Wi-Fi network, mimicking a trusted website, or installing malware on a device that redirects browsing traffic to a fake website.

There are many different types of MITM attacks. Three common ones are:

  • A hacker modifies a device’s internet serial number (IP address)or a website’s address (DNS), redirecting a user from a legitimate website or server to the attacker’s website or server.
  • A hacker sends a user an unencrypted version of a website while simultaneously maintaining a secure session with the actual website, thereby stripping away the data filesand encryption that ensure safe web connections (for example, when placing an order or paying a bill, the URL of the website should start with “https://”; the “s” stands for “secure”).
  • Email hijacking: A hacker gains access to an email account — typically by stealing a password or using a cleverly worded emailto persuade a user to click on a link — and then uses the account to gather information.

Recent known MITM attacks include a vulnerability in a popular software solution and a hack on Uber.

Signs of an MITM Attack

MITM attacks are sophisticated, requiring substantial knowledge about internet protocols, network and software vulnerabilities, and decryption. As a result, they’re often difficult to notice because the skillful attacker uses a wide range of methods to avoid detection.

Signs that a device, website, or server may be actively targeted by an MITM attack include:

  • A user experiences repeated and unexpected disruptions of service. Hackers often disconnect user sessions and steal authentication information when a user reconnects.
  • Network logs indicate a device repeatedly connecting to a suspicious website address, such as micosoft.com.
  • A latency examination may detect an MITM attack. A data transfer, particularly one containing encrypted data, sent directly to another party will travel faster than one passing through a hidden intermediary.
  • deep packet inspection— which scrutinizes network traffic to identify irregularities, usually as part of a firewall defense — may also detect an MITM attack.

How to Prevent a Man-in-the-Middle Attack

Several tools and best practices help reduce the risks of MITM attacks. Common methods used to protect devices and servers are:

  • Installing software updates immediately upon their release. MITM attacks often target known software vulnerabilities.
  • Setting up virtual private networksto encrypt internet connections and online data transfers.
  • Installing antimalware and other internet security products, in addition to antivirus software.
  • Installing tamper-detection software to uncover latencies.

Providing regular training to users and employees may be the most effective method of avoiding MITM attacks. Best practices for users include avoiding unknown or public Wi-Fi networks, knowing how to recognize phishing emails, signing out of applications not in use, clearing cookies at regular intervals, and heeding browser warnings about unsecured connections.

Assessing Your Company’s Cybersecurity

Thanks to modern internet encryption and network security tools, MITM attacks have become relatively rare, compared to ransomware and other types of cyberattacks. Although the risk may be low, the impact can be high. When MITM attacks do occur, they typically result in significant damage, including malware infestation, identity or data theft, and financial or reputational losses. To determine whether your network, devices, and websites are sufficiently protected against MITM attacks and other threats, contact us today for a free security assessment.

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