Three's a crowd: preventing a man-in-the-middle attack
A Man-in-the-Middle attack (MitM) is a cyber threat, with a name that perfectly defines its behavior. Between you and your final destination (a website or an app), there’s a “man” silently spying on your activities. Crooks intercept your communications so that neither you nor the end destination knows someone has gained unauthorized access. Hence, detecting a man-in-the-middle attack may be difficult, but luckily, it is preventable.
What is a man-in-the-middle attack?
A man-in-the-middle attack involves someone stealthily intercepting two communicating systems, such as your laptop and a remote web server. The unknown “man” seizes and manipulates your traffic with intentions to gain valuable information. Crooks use a MitM attack to steal credentials or credit card details, sabotage communications, and corrupt data. Hackers can achieve this disruption by interfering through legitimate networks (public hotspots) or by creating fake ones. These attacks can cause severe damage by slipping into networks undetected, harvesting private data, and leaving before anyone suspects anything.
Imagine you bring your laptop to your favorite coffee shop, and connect to its free Wi-Fi. You are ready to do some work, make a wire transfer, or simply chat with your loved ones. When you visit a website, your device sends the instructions to the coffee shop’s router, which then redirects the information to the website’s server. After that, the server sends a response to you through the shop’s router. However, a suspicious person stands in the middle of these back and forth communications thanks to a successful MitM attack.
Man-in-the-middle attack types
Man-in-the-middle attacks can differ: from network-based hacks to malware injections via social engineering techniques. However, the most common MitM attacks involve:
- Email hijacking. An attacker compromises the victims’ email addresses and silently eavesdrops on their conversations. Also, email hijacking works well with social engineering. By spoofing one’s email address, the crook can use impersonation to manipulate the victim into making a wire transfer, revealing financial login information, or installing malicious software.
- Wi-Fi eavesdropping. Public hotspots are a perfect target for hackers to eavesdrop on users’ unencrypted connections. However, this type of man-in-the-middle attack also involves creating fake Wi-Fi hotspots, also known as “Evil Twins.” The attacker makes the connection look authentic down to the network’s ID and password.
- IP spoofing. Here, the attacker impersonates another device by using its authorized IP address. It unlocks access to internal networks by manipulating its data packets into thinking the traffic originates from approved devices. In such a man-in-the-middle attack, the hacker tricks you into thinking you’re communicating with a particular website. In reality, you’re giving access to the information you’d otherwise not share.
- Session hijacking. Here, the attacker gains access to your online sessions via stolen browser cookies. They store valuable information, such as login details, and visited websites. By stealing the cookie, the attacker can hijack your online session and gain full access to your accounts.
How to prevent a man-in-the-middle attack?
- Visit HTTPS-enabled websites only. Look for a small padlock in your URL bar to check if a trusted authority certifies the site.
- Remain vigilant about all emails or attachments you weren’t expecting.
- Avoid public Wi-Fi whenever possible. Try to limit its use to regular browsing, reading, or similar activities that wouldn’t require private information.
- Secure your home Wi-Fi. Change your username and password from default to strong, unique credentials.
- Use a VPN. Since the man-in-the-middle attack results from unsafe, unencrypted connections, a VPN remains the most effective solution. A VPN creates a secure and encrypted tunnel for your data, converting it into an unreadable format. Reputable tools like Atlas VPN use 256-bit military-grade encryption, which makes your data practically impossible to crack.