Man-in-The-Middle (MitM) Attack: Definition & Defenses

Man-in-The-Middle (MitM) Attack: Definition & Defenses

A Man-In-The-Middle (MITM) attack is a type of cybersecurity breach that occurs when a hacker intercepts communication between two systems, usually a user's device and a server or website. 

The attacker is then able to eavesdrop, capture, and manipulate the data that is being exchanged. This could involve stealing sensitive information such as login credentials, credit card numbers, or personal identity data. The attacker can also alter the communications, misleading the user or server, often without either party knowing that the attack has occurred.

Within a Nile network, zero trust security principles are extended to the enterprise campus and branch to reduce the attack surface across the LAN. This model mandates secure network access, continuous authorization across all users and devices on the Wi-Fi and wired network. 

This isolates every single device within its own secure tunnel to external security infrastructure such as the corporate firewalls, and eliminates the possibility of malware proliferation and man-in-the-middle attacks. Nile's solution also uses hardened hardware without any console or SSH access locally, tamper proof modules (TPM) to protect all network certificates required for the authenticated operation of its network elements, and MACSec encryption to protect communication channels across all its network elements.

Nile Access Service orchestrates user/device level segmentation and isolation. It uses dynamic rules that move with users and devices, eliminating the need for Layer 2 (L2) VLANs and static ACLs across wired/Wi-Fi networks. This means that each user or device is isolated and has its own set of rules that apply wherever they connect from. All traffic is centralized and user/device attributes are shared with firewalls to protect against threats. Guest user traffic is tunneled to Nile's point-of-presence (PoP), adding an extra layer of protection for the network.

How do MITM attacks work?

MITM attacks work by intercepting and potentially altering the communication between two parties who believe they are privately communicating with each other. Here's the process in more detail:

1. Interception

The first step in a MITM attack is interception. This occurs when the attacker gains access to a network that the victim is using - it could be a local network (like a public or unsecured Wi-Fi) or a more complex network (like an online banking system). The attacker positions themselves between the victim's device and the network.

2. Decryption

Once the data has been intercepted, the attacker must decrypt it if it is encrypted. They may do this using various methods such as HTTPS spoofing, SSL stripping, or SSL hijacking. HTTPS spoofing involves the attacker creating a fake certificate and pretending to be the website the user is trying to reach. SSL stripping downgrades a secure SSL/TLS connection to an insecure HTTP connection. SSL hijacking occurs at the beginning of the TCP connection, leading to the attacker gaining access to all data sent over the connection.

3. Reading and modification

After decrypting the information, the attacker can now read, insert, modify, or steal the specific information they need. This might be login credentials, credit card information, or sensitive emails. The attacker might also alter the communication between parties, causing transactions, requests, or responses to play out differently.

4. Re-encryption and delivery

Once the attacker has performed their intended actions, they re-encrypt the data and send it to the intended recipient. The recipient, under the impression they communicate securely with a known party, is none the wiser.

Throughout this process, neither the victim nor the website or application realize they're communicating with an attacker as everything seems normal, making MITM attacks hard to detect.

How common are Man-In-The-Middle attacks?

Man-in-the-middle attacks are relatively common in the realm of cyber security. A recent report found that MITM attacks have increased by 35% from 2022 to 2023. Their frequency can vary based on several factors, including the type of data being transmitted, the security measures in place, and the attacker's motivation. Due to their potential profitability for cybercriminals, MITM attacks are a continuous threat.

It's also important to understand that while MITM attacks are technically challenging to execute, they are disproportionately common in certain environments – particularly those that lack basic network protections. For instance, open Wi-Fi networks in public places like coffee shops, airports, and hotels are common places where these types of attacks occur.

Types of MITM attacks

There are several distinct types of Man-In-The-Middle attacks, including:

IP Spoofing

Attackers send IP packets from a deceptive source address, leading the recipient to believe the packets come from a trusted entity. This tactic can be employed to hide the attacker's identity or gain unauthorized system access.

DNS Spoofing

Also known as DNS cache poisoning, this method has attackers redirecting a domain name's requests to an alternate IP address, usually one they control. This can mislead users into interacting with malicious sites under the guise of a trusted domain.

ARP Spoofing

By employing ARP spoofing, an attacker associates their MAC address with the IP address of a genuine user on a local area network (LAN). This tactic can redirect traffic intended for that user's IP address to the attacker's machine.

Wi-Fi Eavesdropping

Attackers create malicious Wi-Fi networks that appear authentic. When unsuspecting users connect to these networks, attackers can monitor their online actions and extract their data without their knowledge.

HTTPS Spoofing

In this type of attack, individuals are deceived into believing they are on a secure site (HTTPS), but they are, in fact, interacting with an unsecured version (HTTP). This can lead to the exposure of sensitive information.

SSL Hijacking

During SSL hijacking, attackers capture the SSL data exchanged between a client and a server. This interception can reveal sensitive details, particularly if the user believes they're communicating securely.

Session Hijacking

After a user logs into a site, attackers can take over the user's session, often by stealing their session cookie. With this unauthorized access, attackers can perform actions on the site as if they were legitimate users.

Relay Attacks

Using relay attacks, an attacker passes on a message from the user directly to a system. The system is duped into believing the message came straight from the user, even though it was relayed through an attacker, potentially leading to unauthorized actions or access.

The best prevention strategy against MITM attacks combines solid security practices, informed users, and technologies like encryption and multifactor authentication.

How to detect a man-in-the-middle attack

Detecting a Man-In-The-Middle attack can be challenging due to its stealthy nature. However, several signs can help to identify a potential MitM attack:

Monitor network performance

An unexpected drop in network speed might be a sign of a Man-in-the-Middle (MitM) attack. When data is intercepted and channeled through a malicious source, it can lead to slowed transmission rates.

Inspect the URL

By examining a URL closely, users can identify suspicious or mismatched domain names that might indicate a phishing site or a fake platform designed to initiate an attack. Many MITM attacks rely on tricking the user into interacting with these deceptive sites, so being vigilant about URL authenticity can thwart such attempts. Utilizing URL inspection tools or browser extensions can further automate this process, alerting users to potentially harmful sites before they engage with them.

Certificate warnings

Pay close attention whenever your web browser flags an alert about questionable or unverified website security certificates. Such warnings could signal an attempted MitM redirection of your data.

Unusual account activity

Regular incidents of account lockouts or unexpected password reset notifications may indicate MitM attempts. AI-powered behavioral monitoring tools can help spot unusual account activity related to an account takeover. Using geolocation to identify “impossible travel” is also important. For example, if a user account last logged in from Texas, and logs in from Pakistan ten minutes later, we know it cannot be the same user.

Two-factor authentication (2FA)

Though 2FA isn't a direct way to detect a MitM attack, it serves as an added layer of security. It can alert you when there are unauthorized efforts to access your accounts and oftentimes prevent an account takeover even if credentials are compromised.

SSL and HTTPS

Always ensure that the data transfer between your browser and the websites you visit is encrypted through SSL and HTTPS protocols. Witnessing a typically secure (HTTPS) site without its encryption should raise suspicions. Administrators can set network traffic to default to HTTPS to help avoid unsecured connections.

Use Antivirus and Firewall Software

Consistently keeping your antivirus and firewall software updated is crucial. Such defenses can identify and thwart many variants of MitM assaults, ensuring your digital security.

How to prevent man-in-the-middle attacks?

There are several strategies to prevent MITM attacks:

Partner with a professional

From DNS spoofing to session hijacking, preventing MITM attacks can feel overwhelming. Many organizations choose to partner with a trusted technology provider to implement best security and performance practices.

A Nile network automatically protects your access network by design, all while guaranteeing performance for coverage, capacity and availability. By extending zero-trust security principles to your campus and branch locations and enabling always-on encryption across the entire network footprint, you can rest easy knowing your resources are protected.

Use strong encryption

To keep exchanged information confidential, encryption is key. Employing either Transport Layer Security (TLS) or Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) on websites can stave off numerous MITM attacks by making the data unreadable to unauthorized viewers.

Implement HTTPS

Prioritize websites prefixed with "HTTPS" – the "S" indicates a secure connection. It encrypts the HTTP protocol through SSL/TLS, ensuring the data you share or receive is protected. Many modern browsers visibly warn users before connecting to an unencrypted connection.

Employ secure Wi-Fi

Fortify your Wi-Fi by setting robust passwords and implementing WPA2 or WPA3 encryption for better Wi-Fi security.

Regularly update software

Always stay updated. Ensure your browsers, software, applications, and operating systems have the latest security patches to shield against vulnerabilities.

Be aware of suspicious activity

Vigilance is essential. Be on the lookout for red flags, such as unanticipated software installations, security warnings, unusual network activity, or a sudden drop in network performance.

Implement two-factor authentication (2FA)

Introducing 2FA bolsters security defenses. Requiring two distinct verification forms during login helps prevent an account takeover, even if attackers successfully steal information during a MITM attack.

Regularly monitor network traffic

Consistent oversight, combined with a robust intrusion detection system (IDS), can detect and counteract MITM threats as they emerge.

Use a firewall and install antimalware software

Business-grade firewalls allow administrators to force connections to only use HTTPS and can block domains and servers associated with cybercrime. Endpoint antimalware software can also monitor a computer’s DNS settings and connections to prevent an attack from taking place.

Educate and train employees

Empowering employees with knowledge is pivotal. Regular training sessions can help them identify phishing schemes, uphold password integrity, and minimize the use of public Wi-Fi for work-related tasks.

Eliminate the middleman

Nile utilizes always-on encryption across all elements of its network to defend every connection against MITM attacks and unauthorized access, all while guaranteeing network performance.

Nile's security approach includes dynamic rules that move with users and devices, and ensures isolation across all authorized users and IoT devices. Security patch updates are handled by Nile's production engineers, providing an extra layer of protection.

A Nile network centralizes all traffic and shares user/device attributes with firewalls for enhanced security. Guest user traffic is tunneled to Nile's point-of-presence (PoP), protecting your network. It filters out friendly access points, alerting only to genuine threats like man-in-the-middle attacks and rogue APs.

With Nile, the zero trust security model is not an add-on, it is embedded within the network from the start, reducing the attack surface across the LAN. Get in touch and let’s discover how to improve network security across your organization.

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