A machine-in-the-middle (MITM) attack refers to an attack scenario or exploit on the Internet in which an attacker physically or logically inserts a system under their control between the victim’s system and an Internet resource used by the victim. The attacker aims to intercept, secretly read or manipulate communication between the victim and the internet resource without being noticed. In this context, the MITM attack is synonymous with man-in-the-middle attacks. A malicious device or software component slipped between legitimate communication partners. Read in this blog post why this form of attack is so dangerous and how you can protect yourself against this type of cyber threat.
MITM attacks as a terminator: how dangerous intermediaries can infiltrate data traffic
In the world of cybersecurity, MITM attacks – whether carried out by man or machine – are like the silent protagonists from the Terminator franchise. They operate in the background, mediate between us and the digital world and can put our digital existence in danger without us noticing. The analogy to the Terminator films may seem odd at first glance, but the franchise and the method of attack share a lot in common.
In the Terminator films, artificial beings called Terminators are sent on a mission to influence the future of humanity. They do this by getting between the people and their objectives, thereby altering the course of history. Likewise, MITM attacks in the digital world act as malicious middlemen – slinking in between our devices and the servers with which we communicate. Yet – unlike the Terminators who battle it out on the silver screen – MITM attacks take place covertly in the shadows of our digital lives.
A machine-in-the-middle attack works in a similar way to a man-in-the-middle attack.
First, the attacker gains access to a communication channel, which can be a network connection, a Wi-Fi hotspot or even a physical channel. The attacker then places malware or an infected device between the two communication partners. This allows the software or infected device to intercept all the data traffic that is exchanged between the two parties. In the next step, the intercepted data traffic can be monitored and manipulated. In addition to reading sensitive and personal data such as passwords and bank details, the attacker can also change information in the data traffic, for example, in order to manipulate the recipient.
Differences between man-in-the-middle and machine-the-middle attacks
In an MITM attack, an attacker actively interposes himself between two communication partners, for example, a client and a server. An MITM attack usually involves malicious software, for example, a Trojan, which is installed on a computer or other network device after a phishing attack. However, in addition to malicious software components, compromised network devices are also used, for example, a router or switch. This device can pass through all data traffic and intercept or manipulate the data traffic in the process. The firmware or configuration of the device is changed so that it acts as a MITM intermediary.
Finally, hackers can also use fake routers or hotspots that look like legitimate access points. When users connect to this fake device, the attacker can intercept and control the traffic passing through this hotspot or router.
Even if data is encrypted, a MITM attack can be used to bypass the encryption and access the unencrypted data. This weakens the security mechanisms normally used to protect the data.
The consequences are usually devastating: once the cybercriminal has intercepted sensitive data, they can use it for identity theft, account takeover or more advanced attacks. The victims usually have to deal not only with the financial consequences but also with a loss of reputation. Furthermore, the trust between users and providers is also severely damaged. When users discover that their communications or financial transactions have been compromised, they lose trust in the systems or services in question.
Another point is that MITM attacks are often used to load and implement further malware on the victims' devices. In addition to further spyware, ransomware can be installed this way. As a result, the victim's data is encrypted, and the cybercriminals blackmail them to decrypt the data again.
Measures to repel machine-in-the-middle attacks: foresight is better than hindsight
When it comes to taking preventive action against machine-in-the-middle attacks, we can recommend some best practices:
- Use secure connections. If you are transmitting sensitive data, we recommend using HTTPS instead of HTTP for websites. Secure protocols for email and messaging services are also an absolute must.
- Check certificates: Always check the validity of the certificate used for SSL/TLS encrypted connections.
- Update software and operating systems: We always advise checking that software and operating systems are up to date and updating them if necessary. This also applies if a software vendor or service provider releases patches. You should import these immediately.
- Caution is advised with public networks. Using VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) ensures that the connection is secure.
- Verify public keys. If you are using a public key, we recommend that you verify the public key of the communication partner.
- Use strong authentication. Strong customer authentication (SCA), such as two-factor authentication (2FA) or multi-factor authentication (MFA) offers added security against access to sensitive data.
MITM attacks pose a serious threat to security in the digital age, whether they are carried out by machine or manually. The good news is that there are ways to protect yourself from MITM attacks. Using secure connections, checking certificates, updating software and operating systems and ensuring secure networks can minimise the risk. The use of encryption, strong authentication methods and systems to monitor networks are also important preventive steps.