Preventing Man-in-the-Middle Attacks by Safeguarding Your Network and Identifying Vulnerabilities
Have you ever received a package that appeared to have been opened before it reached you, and upon opening it, found that some items were missing? Have you used your credit card for a purchase, only to discover a week later that your statement showed several unauthorized charges? These scenarios are classic examples of unauthorized intermediary attacks, where someone intercepts and tampers with your package or credit card information during a normal transaction.
Consider another situation. You’re at an airport, waiting for your flight, and decide to use your laptop to check emails and browse the web. You find and connect to what seems to be an official airport Wi-Fi network. Once connected, you enter your login credentials to access various online services. However, months later, you discover that your credentials have been leaked on the dark web and one of your accounts has been compromised. This is a textbook case of a man-in-the-middle attack, where an attacker intercepts your data in a seemingly secure and trustworthy environment.
What is a Man-in-the-Middle Attack?
A man-in-the-middle (MITM) attack is a type of cyberattack in which an intruder surreptitiously inserts themselves into a communication process to intercept crucial information. This attacker might merely eavesdrop on the conversation, quietly pilfering confidential details, or they could play a more aggressive role by modifying your message contents or posing as the individual or system you believe you’re engaging with. Once an attacker successfully positions themselves in the middle of your digital communication, they essentially create a hidden backdoor that allows them concealed access to your data and online interactions.
The Serious Nature of MITM Attacks
MITM attacks are particularly threatening because they enable hackers to capture critical data such as usernames, passwords, credit card details, and banking information without the user realizing the presence of an intermediary diverting their data to a hostile entity. Once in possession of this data, cybercriminals can exploit it in various ways, including manipulating account details, withdrawing funds, or making unauthorized transactions.
According to a 2022 report by F5, more than half of all man-in-the-middle (MITM) attacks involve intercepting sensitive data, including login credentials and banking information. A 2020 report from Accenture highlights the significant financial impact of these attacks, revealing that MITM attacks contribute to an estimated $2 billion in annual global losses.
More Prevalent Than You Might Think
We hear a lot about ransomware attacks and large-scale data breaches, but for a single user, MITM attacks can be considered a greater risk as these attacks target the weakest link, individual users. The X-Force Threat Intelligence Index from IBM indicates that man-in-the-middle (MITM) attacks comprise 35% of all exploitation activities. Additionally, there’s a notable rise in phishing attacks employing MITM methods, with a 35% surge in such emails reaching inboxes from Q1 2022 to Q1 2023.
The Two-Stage Attack
Two prevalent forms of a MITM attack include the following scenarios:
- First, a threat actor sets up a malicious access point in a strategic location, enticing unsuspecting victims to connect to it. Once connected, the attacker can manipulate any traffic generated by the victim.
- The second involves a deceptive login page concealed within an email. Unsuspecting victims enter their credentials or multi-factor authentication (MFA) details into this page. In this situation, the attacker captures all the entered information and uses it to access the victim’s account by relaying it to the legitimate site.
Regardless of the tactics used, a MITM involves a two-stage attack:
- The first stage is interception, which as its name implies, intercepts user traffic before it reaches its intended destination. The interception process is implemented using tactics such as spoofing IP or MAC addresses or a DNS server.
- The next stage is the decryption stage. Here the attacker quietly decodes the stolen data. In the case of unencrypted traffic, this can be done by using a sniffer. For encrypted traffic an attacker may use methods that include HTTPS stripping, SSL hijacking or SSL stripping.
What Can Users Do to Protect Themselves
The covert nature of MITM attacks makes them particularly difficult for individual users to guard against. Additionally, the challenge is compounded for mobile users who frequently navigate multiple sites that utilize a wide array of technology stacks. There are several proactive steps individual users can take to lower the risk of your sessions being intercepted by attackers:
- Avoid connecting to public Wi-Fi networks unless it’s absolutely necessary. These networks are often less secure, making them prime targets for MITM attacks.
- Use a VPN when connecting to any network as it adds an extra layer of encryption to your session traffic, making it more challenging for an attacker to breach your communications.
- Always opt for websites with HTTPS as this protocol encrypts the data between your browser and the website, making it more difficult for attackers to decrypt and access your information.
- Use advanced multi-factor authentication (MFA) methods like authenticator apps or FIDO keys, which, unlike traditional MFA options such as SMS, don’t require typing in information that could be intercepted by attackers.
The Power of a SOC Backed MDR
It is, however, unrealistic to expect users to never click an embedded email link or refrain from using SMS for multi-factor authentication because users don’t always follow best practices when it comes to security. You could say that standard users operate much like a system that lacks protective patches and updates.
That is why you need a scalable solution so that protection is ensured. While MITM attacks might be transparent to standard users, SOC security teams are adept at identifying these covert attempts by attackers. Through continuous monitoring of network traffic for irregular patterns or activities, SOCs make it significantly more challenging for MITM attacks to succeed within a closely watched network.
A SOC will communicate that users should utilize strong encryption protocols for data transmission and that only HTTPS websites are allowed to be accessed, significantly reducing risk. Employing sophisticated security tools, a SOC can spot anomalies or signs of malicious intent. Additionally, when partnered with a reliable MSSP, they are equipped to recommend the most current MFA methods and offer advice on secure Wi-Fi usage and guidance on legitimate website security certificates.
Businesses are under assault from so many fronts when it comes to cybersecurity and there are so many things that can go wrong, especially when it comes to your users. While achieving complete protection might be unattainable, the presence of an experienced and battle-hardened MDR, adept at recognizing threats, is indispensable. It’s crucial not to leave your business’s middle flank vulnerable to attackers. Ensuring that the right people are equipped with the appropriate tools to defend against potential attacks is key to maintaining your organization’s cybersecurity.