Don’t you just love the portability of modern-day remote work? Any café, airport, or city promenade can magically become your office for the day.
However, one downside is that the public Wi-Fi networks you need to get your work done are prime places for risks such as the Man-in-the-Middle (MITM) cyber attacks.
They happen just like they sound. A cyber attacker inserts themselves between you and the application you’re using and “eavesdrops” on your data exchange. The attacker gains access by taking control of a public Wi-Fi network or offering unencrypted Wi-Fi to lure you in. Once connected, the attacker can see all the data transmitted back and forth while remaining undetected.
The attacker doesn’t stop there. Often, they redirect your conversation to an imposter site that looks nearly identical to the one you expect. There, they impersonate you or the application at the other end. When the interaction proceeds as usual, you share sensitive details without a second thought. Or attackers might alter data passing through, such as bank account numbers or transfer amounts.
The goal is often to steal sensitive data, such as credit card details, login credentials, and passwords. Favorite attack targets include banking sites, investment apps, e-commerce platforms, and business software. The attacks pose a significant danger to company security since they can open gateways to larger networks for data theft or installing malware.
When the Man-in-the-Middle attack is done well, you don’t even know it happened. That is, until something alerts you to an earlier compromise—a breach of your bank account, proof of purchases you didn’t make, corrupted files on your computer, or an attempt to use your identity.
Luckily, there are ways to protect yourself. Let’s understand how MITM attacks work and learn how to prevent them.
How do Man-in-the-Middle Attackers Gain Access to Your Personal Information?
Man-in-the-Middle is an umbrella term for various phishing-type attacks involving data interception. Here are the common types and how they work.
Evil Twin Attacks
Cyber attackers exploit the ubiquity and popularity of free, accessible Wi-Fi by imitating actual Wi-Fi access points in public places. Illegitimate Wi-Fi networks often have titles that look and sound very similar to real networks. When users connect, cyber attackers get access to all the data sent over the network.
For this technique, cyber attackers infiltrate your DNS (Domain Name System) cache or a DNS server to change the settings for a domain or inject a “poisoned” address. A user visiting a legitimate site is redirected to the attacker’s malicious site from the manipulated DNS address book.
HTTPS connections are generally protected by secure SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) code, but cyber attackers can intercept the SSL certification and create an unencrypted HTTP connection between you and them. The attacker maintains a secure HTTPS connection with the server while retaining complete visibility over your data throughout the session.
Cyber attackers can exploit Local Area Networks (LAN) and send false ARP (Address Resolution Protocol) messages. These messages link the cyber attacker’s media access control (MAC) address to an authentic IP (Internet Protocol) address on the network. Once connected, the attacker receives messages intended for that IP address and can use that access to intercept your data.
7 Tips to Prevent Falling Victim to Man-in-the-Middle Attacks
Being aware of MITM attacks is the first step in avoiding them. These additional steps strengthen your defense and help stop cyber attackers before they hijack your data exchange.
- Protect your internet communication using TLS (Transport Layer Security) encryption. URLs are connected by TLS when they begin with HTPPS and display a padlock icon. Enable the latest version of TLS on your web browser and other services, such as email.
- Use Wi-Fi safely. Secure your home Wi-Fi with a strong password. If you need to use a public hotspot, double-check the network name and look for a page with terms and conditions, which can signal that the Wi-Fi is legitimate. If you have any doubt about network security, put off sensitive transactions until you get home.
- Use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) at home and in public. These networks add a layer of security to your data exchanges by encrypting everything that passes through the connection. That way, even if a Man-in-the-Middle attacker is eavesdropping on the network, the encryption prevents them from seeing your sensitive data.
- Examine URLs and websites closely. The spoofing and stripping that MITM attackers use to trick you rely on lookalike sites and web addresses. A slight alteration can be a giveaway. If you get an alert about a suspicious website or a webpage that looks unusual, trust your instincts, terminate the exchange, and disconnect. Check in later when you’re on a secure network.
- Enable multi-factor identification. If your login credentials are compromised in a Man-in-the-Middle attack, the cyber attacker can’t use them without access to your phone or other identifying resource.
- Keep your software up to date on all your personal and business devices. Newer versions will address vulnerabilities and close gaps that Man-in-the-Middle attackers have exploited in the past.
- Learn and implement best practices for keeping your private data private. Prevention is always better than cure. Education helps you and your users stop a cyber attack before it even starts.
While these efforts mount a strong defense against Man-in-the-Middle attacks, take steps to mitigate potential damage and back up your data and applications in a secure place. If you fall victim to a MITM attack, change your passwords and use your backups to restore your data as soon as possible.
Cyber Attack Methods Evolve: Be Prepared
Man-in-the-Middle attacks are not new but occur more frequently as employees embrace remote work and use unsecured networks. You can reduce your chance of compromise by using protected Wi-Fi, staying alert for unusual exchanges, requests, or URLs, updating your software, and implementing best practices.
Cyber Security Hub: Access Exclusive Cyber Security Content
Are your employees aware of Man in the Middle attacks and heeding the warning signs? Start building cyber security awareness in your organization with resources from our Cyber Security Hub.