Anything from your phone to your laptop and even your smart television can be vulnerable to a Man-In-The-Middle attack. Understanding how this particular breed of cyberattack occurs could help you to prevent and detect a Man-In-The-Middle attack, keeping your devices and data safe.
Man-In-The-Middle attacks can target private conversations or exchanges with banks and providers, giving the attacker the opportunity to either lift or transform information. In a world that’s increasingly digital, being aware of Man-In-The-Middle attacks could save you some serious headaches (and money) in protecting passwords and sensitive information before they find themselves in the wrong hands.
What is a Man-In-The-Middle attack?
While Man-In-The-Middle attacks can occur in a number of ways, the general gist of each cyberattack is the same. Pretty much what it says on the tin, a Man-In-The-Middle attack involves a third party gatecrashing your communication with another person or provider by centering themselves in the exchange.
From this hidden vantage point, the attacker can either be a passive eavesdropper or play an active role in changing what information is being delivered or where it is being delivered to.
How do Man-In-The-Middle attacks work?
One place where people are particularly vulnerable to Man-In-The-Middle attacks is airports, as this is a common place to connect to a shared network. An attacker can create a Wi-Fi hotspot off their phone with a network name appearing official enough for someone to connect to it. Once their victim has joined the network, the attacker can dredge the phone for useful and/or lucrative data.
These cyberattacks can also hack their way onto your home network. Multi-factor authentication (MFA) – adding extra steps to your login such as receiving a code via text – is one way to protect against Man-In-The-Middle attacks, but they aren’t foolproof.
Say an attacker sends you a phishing link disguised as a login page for your email. You click the link and are taken to a website asking for your username and password. The Man-In-The-Middle attacker can then give this information to your email provider triggering them to send you, the owner, the MFA code to access your account via text.
You then enter the MFA code into the fake webpage, meaning the attacker now has your email, password, and MFA code. At this point, the attacker can hoist something called the session cookie – quite the snack for a hungry hacker, as it’ll enable them to log in to your email and loot your inbox for all it’s worth.
Common Man-In-The-Middle attack types
Man-In-The-Middle attacks come in many disguises, but some of the most common include:
- Email hijacking - You might think nobody’s interested in your mundane email activity, but inboxes are a goldmine for interactions between services and customers, including banks and cardholders. A Man-In-The-Middle attack may use a fake email address to target customers and lift their credentials.
- HTTPS spoofing - Creating a fake website address is another way attackers can target victims. By closely mimicking a website address Man-In-The-Middle attacks can lull people into a false sense of security, making them believe they are on an official site. This is a common approach used for lifting login details.
- IP spoofing - A similar approach can be taken involving Internet Protocol (IP) address (the unique characters identifying devices over a network). Changing the IP address can hide the sender's identity, enabling them to impersonate another computer system or person. This makes internet users vulnerable to handing over information to the wrong person.
- Wi-Fi eavesdropping - Arguably one of the easiest forms of Man-In-The-Middle attacks, the attacker sets up a trustworthy-sounding Wi-Fi network and waits for the victims to voluntarily connect. If a person takes the bait, the attacker can then eavesdrop on their Internet activity.
Man-In-The-Middle attack detection
There are signs you can keep an eye out for that could indicate you’ve fallen victim to a Man-In-The-Middle attack:
- Weird addresses in your browser - Look to the top of your screen – with any luck, you should be seeing something starting with iflscience.com. If you ever look at this bar and see you’re unexpectedly on go0gle.com instead of google.com, for example, you might be in Man-In-The-Middle attack territory. Unfortunately, attackers can be very clever making these hard to spot, for example: using an uppercase I instead of a lowercase l, both of which look identical.
- Check the HTTPS - Not sure if a website is genuine? Check to see if it has a green lock symbol next to the address. Also, does it start with “http://” or “https://”? The extra “s” stands for “secure” and means it can’t be hijacked as your connection is encrypted.
- Repeated disconnections - An attacker can’t insert themselves into your exchanges if they miss the first step, so they might try booting you out of whatever you were logged into so that they can wriggle their way in. If you’re finding yourself being repeatedly logged out, it could be that someone is attempting a Man-In-The-Middle attack.
- Unofficial Wi-Fi network names - As mentioned earlier, public spaces where people are connecting to shared Wi-Fi networks are prime Man-In-The-Middle attack territory. Attackers will use generic, benign names promising free wireless to lure in victims: don’t be one of them.
Man-In-The-Middle attack prevention
As with many things in life, when it comes to surviving a Man-In-The-Middle attack, prevention is the best approach.
- Opt for multi-factor authentication whenever available
- Only join secure, trusted networks
- Always log out when you are finished with a session
- Join HTTPS connections, as explained above
- Use end-to-end encryption for calls and messaging
- Employ password managers so you don’t end up using the same one everywhere
- Monitor network activity and look out for abnormal user behavior
For more tips on how to prevent and detect Man-In-The-Middle attacks, click here.