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What is a man-in-the-middle attack?

Your email and passwords may not be as safe as you think. If you’re the victim of a man-in-the-middle (MITM) attack, someone could be watching every move you make online. In these attacks, hackers spy on your browsing activity and wait for the perfect time to strike. For example, they position themselves between you and the site you’re trying to engage with and manipulate the flow of information – and money.

What is a man-in-the-middle attack?

What is a man-in-the-middle attack?

The MITM method is all about interception. It includes three key elements:

  • The victim
  • The man in the middle
  • The intended recipient or application

One person – the victim – sends sensitive data online, such as an email. Then, there is an intended recipient – an application, website, or person.

Between them, we have the “man in the middle.” This is the malicious actor who finds vulnerabilities, allowing them to watch data as it travels between the victim’s device and that of their intended recipient, ready to intercept and manipulate the communication when the time is right. You can watch our video for more information on this method of attack.

How a man-in-the-middle attack works

Hackers find different ways to exploit software vulnerabilities to place themselves between the user and the website. For example, a malicious actor can intercept data by setting up trap Wi-Fi hotspots. These will not be password protected so that anyone can log on. By naming the connection appropriately – the brand of a nearby cafe, for example – criminals can trick users into logging on. Once the victim is online all their data passing through the hacker’s hotspot is completely exposed.

man-in-the-middle attack infographic

We’ll cover a range of different MITM attacks next, but what you’ll see is that they all follow the same formula: Get between the victim and the intended recipient and steal their data.

Types of man-in-the-middle (MITM) attacks

Here are the main types of MITM attacks:

  • IP spoofing can give hackers access to a device or application, bypassing the authentication process. If a hacker can insert an altered IP address into the “packet” of data they’re sending to the target device, they can trick an application into thinking they’re a trusted network user and granting them access.
  • Man-in-the-browser (MITB) attacks use malware to start the hack. For example, a trojan redirects the user’s traffic to a fake email login page, setting the stage for a classic MITM attack.
  • Wi-Fi eavesdropping is an attack where a hacker eavesdrops on your activity via a Wi-Fi connection, either by hacking a legitimate hotspot or setting up their own.
  • Browser cookies are tiny pieces of information that a website will save on your device. These small packets of data can also contain login credentials, making them very useful to hackers. If someone accesses and decrypts cookies on your device, they could get the keys to a range of other online accounts.
  • ARP spoofing involves attackers sending fake address resolution protocol (ARP) messages over a local area network. This way, they link their MAC address with the IP address on a real network and intercept data.
  • In DNS spoofing, hackers introduce fake DNS responses and redirect traffic to malicious servers they control.
  • HTTP spoofing is an attack where criminals create copies of real websites and use various tricks to get unsuspecting users to enter sensitive data into these sites.
  • SSL hijacking involves intercepting the SSL session by presenting a forged certificate to the user. If the user accepts the certificate, the attacker can decrypt and access the data protected by TLS/SSL.
  • DNS cache, or simply cache, poisoning inserts false information into the DNS cache of a resolver, causing the resolver to return an incorrect IP address and divert traffic to the attacker’s site.

Real examples of man-in-the-middle attacks

Because MITM attacks are like CCing cybercriminals into your every secret, the attacks can do some serious damage. Here are some examples of real MITM attacks:

  • Equifax. At this point, very few people have yet to hear about the infamous Equifax hack that exposed the financial data of 143 million Americans. What you may not know, however, is that the reason this attack was so successful was identity theft. The hackers employed SSL spoofing to catch users’ credentials and further the attack.
  • Superfish. In 2015, a piece of software called Superfish Visual Search, which came pre-installed in Lenovo computers, included a vulnerability allowing the attackers to inject ads into users’ web traffic.
  • DigiNotar. DigiNotar specializes in digital security certificates, a common target for cybercriminals. The company was breached in 2011, and as a result, the attackers managed to gain access to over 500 certificates used by popular websites such as Google.
  • Belgacom Hack. In 2013, the Belgian telecommunications company Belgacom released a statement that cybercriminals had managed to infiltrate their network and intercept encrypted data.
  • Operation Aurora. In 2009, Operation Aurora was a series of state-sponsored cyberattacks targeting dozens of companies. The hackers used MITM attacks to intercept communications and steal proprietary data.

How to prevent MITM attacks

You can prevent MITM attacks in many ways, often just by using your common sense:

  • Be vigilant with emails. Phishing emails are still a popular attack method for criminals. If you receive a strange message, such as an unusual request from your bank, err on the side of caution — it may be an attempt to extract money from you.
  • Implement an endpoint security system. If you run a business, you might worry about employees accidentally giving hackers access to your networks. The best way to avoid this is with an endpoint security approach.
  • Secure your router at home. It’s not just public Wi-Fi that poses a threat. Personal routers are rarely secure, especially when most people never change the default administrator password. Strengthen your home Wi-Fi security so your own home doesn’t become a liability.
  • Use a VPN. Many MITM attacks occur because of unsecured or vulnerable Wi-Fi connections. The antidote? Encrypt your data. When you turn on a VPN, all of your browsing information will move along an encrypted tunnel between your device and a secure external server. Even if you connect to a hacker’s hotspot, all they’ll be able to see is encrypted gibberish. Just make sure you’re not using split tunneling on unsafe networks — MITM attacks are a well-known split tunneling security risk.
  • Use multi-factor authentication (MFA). While complex, unique passwords are great, hackers still find ways to bypass them. MFA ensures that you have a second level of defense ready, even if your password is ever leaked.
  • Enable Threat Protection. NordVPN’s Threat Protection feature blocks ads and trackers and scans files for malware before they’re downloaded to your device.

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