Imagine that you live in British Columbia and you want to send a package to someone in Nova Scotia. If someone from Ontario happens to know the carrier of the package, they can pretend to be the carrier. They could steal the package or swap it with something else. This scenario is an analogy for the man-in-the-middle (MiTM) attack, a method that cybercriminals often use to compromise online communications and transactions.
What Can Happen During a Man-in-The-Middle (MiTM) Attack?
When hackers breach your online communication lines, they can do a lot of bad things. They can steal sensitive information, destroy or corrupt important data, infect data with malware, and clone data with no authorization.
Bank accounts, social security numbers, credit card information, and trade secrets are among the types of data sent online that hackers can steal or copy for nefarious purposes. Since the breach happened in the “middle” of the communication line, the hacker can decide to retrace the node ends involved, such as emails of both correspondents. Once they enter through the “backdoor,” they can modify your passwords and lock you out of your personal accounts.
If the hackers access your email or intercept the data you send online, they can also use the data to pretend they’re someone else—a classic case of identity theft. With the information they stole from you, such as your contacts list, they can carry out scams and other activities that could put you in the crosshairs of the RCMP.
How Can the “Man-in-The-Middle” Fool You and Access Your Communication Lines?
If you are using public or free WiFi at certain establishments, and other networks that have no access restrictions, the “man-in-the-middle” can simply set up imitation portals channels that will mimic legitimate ones. Because of how many people are using these connections, they can get lost in the crowd and conduct the attack without being noticed. The “man-in-the-middle” can also enter through malware that is opened on your computer. They will send dubious ads or links that contain the malware and trick you into clicking on or opening them.
Who Are the Usual Targets of MiTM Attacks?
Perpetrators of man-in-the-middle attacks usually target the websites or web applications of businesses. They do this to gain access to the data they contain. MiTM attackers can also target people’s email if they determine that you or the other people you communicate with are worth their money and skills.
Even as internet connection technologies allow for encryption, hackers continuously come up with ways to go around encryption systems. These hackers may employ social engineering to trick users. Thus, even an apparently secure connection does not guarantee protection from MiTM attacks. The best that cybersecurity can offer is to make the process of decrypting the data too time-consuming for the hacker so they will give up trying.
How Does Sniffing Differ From a MiTM Attack?
When you connect to the internet, a lot of information becomes publicly accessible. Similar to lights at night giving away the presence of people and their location, the same goes for data packets. Attackers that employ sniffing use programs called sniffers to trace the position of these data packets. The attacker will only have to figure out which network segment your data packet is connected to.
MiTM shares some characteristics with sniffing in that this technique involves the interception of data between two nodes of communication. But instead of using programs that actively seek you out, they can pose as your router or server so that you connect with them and course your communications through them without suspicion.
Unlike sniffing, man-in-the-middle attacks do not involve actively attacking the communication segment. What makes MiTM attacks especially harmful is that you don’t notice any signs of a breach until it’s too late. Worse, the data contained in the communications that passed through the MiTM’s terminals could be changed for something else such as malware, in addition to the data being stolen or cloned.
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