What Is a Man-in-the-Middle Attack?

A man-in-the-middle attack (MitM) is a type of cyberattack in which threat actors intercept communication between two parties. As its name suggests, a MitM attack allows a cybercriminal to eavesdrop on two machines and perform a malicious act. The most common example is logging into a public Wi-Fi network and having your credentials stolen, data corrupted, or various communications sabotaged.

MitM is said to be the oldest type of cyberattack in the world, with the first one recorded in France in 1834. Naturally, technology has evolved a lot since then, giving rise to more sophisticated cyberattacks. This may be why many people no longer consider MitM attacks relevant today, as they can be “easily” avoided with encryption technologies and HTTPS, among other things.

But they’d be sorely mistaken. Most cybercriminals have found ways to work around these safeguards and still cause damage to your network. For example, using MitM, an attacker could manipulate your computer to “downgrade” its connection to become unencrypted or successfully reroute traffic to phishing sites.

As such, MitM attacks could be considered less “in your face” but more mischievous in their attempts to disrupt your technological experience. These attacks can dramatically increase your risk of more damaging technical threats, leading to massive business disruption and financial loss.

How do MitM attacks work?

The strength of MitM attacks is in their simplicity. Unlike other cyberattacks that require a bad actor to gain access to your computer, either physically or remotely, criminals simply need to be on the same network as you.

This can happen in different ways. The most obvious example is using a public Wi-Fi network, but attackers may also employ ARP Cache Poisoning. This technique allows threat actors to associate their MAC address with your IP address. If successful, the attacker will have full access to any data intended for you.

DNS spoofing, or DNS cache poisoning, is another way criminals can use a MitM attack. In DNS spoofing, attackers manipulate, change, or “spoof” DNS records to redirect traffic to a fake website. Attackers can then perform credential dumping, spread malware, or perform other malicious activities.

MitM attackers exploit the natural trusting nature of most people. Older individuals or those with limited financial resources may see the words “Free Wi-Fi” or “Public Wi-Fi”, and choose to connect to them despite the risk or because they have no other choice.

Not surprisingly, mobile phones are the most susceptible to MitM attacks, which has prompted experts to develop plans to improve mobile security against MitM attacks.

Preventing MitM attacks

Successfully preventing MitM attacks is not as cut-and-dry as popularly perceived. As hackers become more sophisticated, so too do their attacks. While there is no way to eliminate this risk, there are some strategies to mitigate its threat to your organization.

  • Implement robust encryption protocols, including HTTPS and end-to-end encryption.
  • Ensure you’re using a secure connection.
  • Set up a VPN.
  • Continually monitor your network.
  • Conduct regular cybersecurity training for all team members.
  • Keep an eye out for unusual changes in your IT network.

Since MitM attacks are typically used as stepping stones to more disruptive cyberattacks, such as malware, installing a comprehensive RMM, like NinjaOne, is highly recommended to easily monitor, manage, and secure your endpoint devices.

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