What Is a Man-in-the-Middle Attack? [Full Guide 2024]

Updated on: April 22, 2024
Ben Martens Ben Martens
Updated on: April 22, 2024

Short on time? Here’s how to stay protected against man-in-the-middle attacks in 2024:

Man-in-the-middle (MITM) attacks require advanced knowledge of cryptography and web protocols, but it’s easy to protect yourself against these kinds of attacks if you have the right tools. Here’s what you should do to keep your device safe from MITM attacks in 2024:

  • Install an antivirus. Premium antiviruses like Norton 360 can block MITM malware and also provide network monitors, secure browsers, web shields, firewalls, dark web monitoring, and identity theft protection.
  • Install software updates ASAP. Many MITM attacks depend on known software vulnerabilities to invade user networks. Updating your OS and software (especially browsers) is a simple way to protect yourself. Avira Prime includes a software updater that can flag out-of-date software.  
  • Avoid unsafe Wi-Fi. Public Wi-Fi networks can be used to initiate MITM attacks — use a secure VPN like ExpressVPN when you’re in public. Norton and McAfee both offer excellent Wi-Fi monitoring tools as well. 
  • The “S” stands for “Secure encryption”. When accessing websites, always try to access HTTPS instead of HTTP sites (look for the “closed lock” icon in your address bar). 

A man-in-the-middle (MITM) attack is a type of cyberattack where a third party secretly places themselves in the middle of a data transfer or conversation between two parties.

For example, MITM attacks often target banking websites — you think you’re securely interacting with your bank, but a hacker is actually logging all of your interactions.

After placing themselves “in the middle”, hackers can steal personal information or modify and manipulate communications between two parties.

Due to advances in encryption technology and network security, MITM attacks have become pretty rare. But when they do occur, they can result in identity theft, malware infestation, and financial losses.

However, you can protect yourself against the network exploits, spoofing, and encryption-breaking techniques used in MITM attacks — you just need the right tools.

What Is a Man-in-the-Middle Attack & How Does It Work?

What Is a Man-in-the-Middle Attack & How Does It Work?

MITM attacks occur when a hacker is able to deceive both a user’s device and the server that the user is trying to access — both systems are unaware there’s an unseen observer recording, decrypting, and potentially even altering the data moving between the two parties.

But gaining this level of access requires significant knowledge about decryption, network exploits, software vulnerabilities, and internet protocols.

Before a hacker can “get in the middle”, that hacker has to intercept a user’s web traffic. This is often done by exploiting an unsecured Wi-Fi network or by spoofing a trusted Wi-Fi network. Hackers can also deceive users by installing malware on their device, which redirects browsing traffic to fake websites and spoofed networks.

Either way, once a hacker has intercepted the user’s web traffic (without alerting that user’s device or the server they’re accessing), the “man-in-the-middle” has several options. They can either allow the user to continue accessing the internet with no interruption (thus spying on their usage and stealing their data), or they can begin to alternate the communications between a user and the internet — for example, a hacker could tell your bank to wire your funds directly to another account and your bank would think you were the one making this request).

How Worried Should I Be about Man-in-the-Middle Attacks?

How Worried Should I Be about Man-in-the-Middle Attacks?

If you haven’t downloaded any unknown programs onto your system or you are only visiting secure, well-known websites, then you probably don’t have to worry that much about a man-in-the-middle attack.

Modern day web encryption tools are able to significantly reduce the risk of MITM attacks. TLS (transport layer security) and SSL (secure sockets layer) are the two predominant encryption protocols used to certify that authentic communication is happening between a user and their intended host.

If you are visiting a secured website that uses HTTPS, that means the site is communicating with your device using TLS or SSL encryption. TLS and SSL both encrypt your data before it leaves your device, so that only the server you’re trying to communicate with can decrypt your data.

The “keys” to decrypting HTTPS traffic are exchanged between your device and the host whenever you access a site through a process known as a “secure handshake”. During the handshake, the host shares a digital certificate with your device that certifies the encryption keys provided are genuine. This prevents a man-in-the-middle from intercepting the handshake and providing a false set of security keys.

There are 5 companies (known as certificate authorities) that issue around 98% of the digital certificates in the world, and there have only been a few high-profile instances of certificate authorities issuing false certificates.

What Happened to DigiNotar and What Does it Mean for Man-in-the-Middle Attacks?

What Happened to DigiNotar and What Does it Mean for Man-in-the-Middle Attacks?

DigiNotar was a small certificate authority (CA) and one of the primary certificate authorities for the Dutch government. The certificates that they issued allowed Dutch government websites to authenticate their validity, but DigiNotar also issued certificates for everyday internet users.

In late 2011, it was discovered that fake DigiNotar certificates were issued for hundreds of websites, including Google, and used for spying on Iranian citizens. These fake certificates allowed a man-in-the-middle to intercept, decrypt, and potentially alter all interactions with those sites.

To this day, it’s unclear what the man-in-the-middle did with this information or who the attacker was. However, a fairly credible note was shared online from someone using the username “Comodohacker”, who claimed to be a young Iranian man. He said he hacked DigiNotar as retaliation against the Dutch government for its involvement in the deaths of 8,000 Muslims in the Bosnian war.

Regardless of who perpetrated the MITM attack or why they did so, every major browser immediately stopped accepting certificates from DigiNotar. The multi-billion dollar tech company lost all credibility after being hacked and issuing these false certificates, and it was shut down within months.

So what does this mean for you and me in 2024? It means that if a certificate authority gets hacked or is otherwise compromised, there’s very little we can do to protect ourselves from MITM attacks.

However, the good news is that our browsers and networks have safeguards in place to detect false certificates, and there is little tolerance for bad security practices within certificate authorities. There hasn’t been a serious compromise of a certificate authority since the DigiNotar scandal, and hopefully we won’t see one again.

What Are the Dangers of Man-in-the-Middle Attacks?

What Are the Dangers of Man-in-the-Middle Attacks?

In general, MITM attacks are performed for financial gain, espionage, mischief, or for the sake of demonstrating a hacker’s abilities. The damage caused may range from small to massive, depending on the attacker’s goal and the types of communication that are manipulated.

MITM attacks are usually used for:

  • Identity theft.
  • Surveillance.
  • Financial exploitation.
  • Malware infection.
  • Business sabotage.
  • Network exploitation.

Due to the increased security and availability of HTTPS servers online, MITM hackers in 2024 generally need to rely on fake certificates to carry out their attacks. These fake certificate attacks are extremely rare, but they can be very harmful.

The Different Kinds of Man-in-the-Middle Attacks

The Different Kinds of Man-in-the-Middle Attacks

There are a lot of different kinds of MITM attacks, but most of them follow a two-step formula:

  1. Interception — The user’s traffic is intercepted before it reaches the intended destination.
  2. Decryption — After a successful interception, the attackers decrypt all traffic without alerting the users at either end of the attack.

Generally, every man-in-the-middle attack falls into one of two broad categories:

  1. Active Session Attack — The attacker diverts user traffic to a new server before reconnecting the user to its intended destination (for example, you think you’re on your bank’s website but you’re actually looking at a spoofed website on a hacker’s server).
  2. Passive Session Attack — The attacker keeps monitoring the data flow over a network without interrupting the communication (for example, you connect with your bank’s website but the hacker is monitoring all of your outgoing and incoming data).

The techniques used for MITM attacks are pretty advanced, but here are the main techniques used by hackers to get between users and the services they’re trying to access:

  • Wi-Fi Eavesdropping — Hackers can set up fake public Wi-Fi networks, frequently in busy urban areas with lots of “normal” public Wi-Fi networks. These fake networks are completely unsecured, routing user data through the hacker’s servers to monitor and intercept user traffic.
  • Spoofing — Hackers can imitate a secure IP address, DNS server, or HTTPS connection with a variety of techniques. These could be as advanced as issuing fake root certificates to deceive the user’s device or as simple as sending a phishing link to a fake website. The end result is that a hacker intercepts the user’s connection and creates an MITM situation.
  • SSL Stripping — Hackers can intercept encrypted traffic coming from a server, decrypting the data and forcing users to connect to the server through an unencrypted HTTP connection, which leaves them wide open to an MITM attack. The term “stripping” refers to the hacking tools used to “strip away” the secure TLS or SSL connection from the user.
  • Email Hijacking — Similar to spoofing, this process involves compromising an email server by creating lookalike email accounts (for example, adding an “s” or “-” to the email address to trick the receiver into thinking it’s a legitimate email address). The man-in-the-middle then intercepts the emails coming through the server, changes the content, and sends the altered data from the lookalike email address.

How Frequent Are Man-in-the-Middle Attacks?

How Frequent Are Man-in-the-Middle Attacks?

It’s because of the sophisticated technology and high-level access needed for executing a MITM attack that they’re typically only carried out by governments and large corporations, although hackers have also executed several attacks over the last few years.

Here are some of the most famous MITM attacks of the 21st century:

  • 2013 — Edward Snowden leaked documents revealing how the USA’s National Security Agency (NSA) used MITM attacks to intercept website traffic and inject malware into certain Tor and Firefox users’ systems.
  • 2014 — Lenovo shipped PCs with the Superfish adware installed, which issued less-than-secure SSL certificates to allow pop-up ads on user desktops. Superfish is considered to be an extreme security vulnerability, and Lenovo PCs were quickly patched and recalled.
  • 2015 — A British couple lost £340,000 when their property sale payment was diverted by a man-in-the-middle attack.
  • 2017 — Equifax had to roll back its mobile app after researchers discovered that it sent data using HTTP instead of the encrypted HTTPS protocol that blocks most MITM attacks.
  • 2019 — Hackers stole a $1 million payment between a Chinese venture capital firm and an Israeli startup by intercepting and altering their email communications in an extensive MITM attack.

Best Ways to Prevent Man-in-the-Middle Attacks

Best Ways to Prevent Man-in-the-Middle Attacks

Even though MITM attacks are not as common as they used to be, there are some necessary steps that you can take to protect yourself. 

  1. Install an antivirus. Antivirus software can provide a variety of useful tools for preventing MITM attacks, as well as preventing further damage once an MITM attack has been initiated. In addition to removing the malware that can be used to set up an MITM attack, many antiviruses provide network monitors, secure browsers, web shields, firewalls, dark web monitoring, and identity theft protections. Norton 360 is my favorite antivirus software for overall internet security.
  2. Install software updates ASAP. Whether there’s an update for your browser, your device’s firmware, your OS, or your apps, software updates often contain patches to fix harmful security vulnerabilities. Hackers are able to deploy botnets that can crawl the internet for users using out-of-date software and target those users with network-based attacks, including MITM attacks. I recommend you enable auto-update settings whenever possible.
  3. Avoid unprotected Wi-Fi connections. Most routers use security systems like WPA2 — plus anti-malware programs such as Norton come equipped with network monitors that offer both real-time assessments and ongoing monitoring to ensure you connect solely to safe Wi-Fi networks.
  4. Browse responsibly. When accessing websites, always try to access HTTPS instead of HTTP sites (you can tell if you’re accessing a secure site because of the “closed lock” icon in the left side of the address bar on most browsers). Recent innovations in server and encryption technology have enabled the majority of sites online to provide secure encrypted connections, and there are even add-ons and extensions for Chrome and Firefox that will automatically redirect your traffic from HTTP to HTTPS addresses whenever possible.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a man-in-the-middle attack?

A man-in-the-middle (MITM) attack happens when a third-party positions itself between two parties without their knowledge, intercepting and potentially even modifying internet traffic.

The hacked users think that they are exchanging information directly with their intended recipient because the “man-in-the-middle” is able to mimic (or “spoof”) websites, DNS servers, Wi-Fi networks, IoT (Internet of Things) devices, email addresses, and/or routers.

Cybercriminals can use MITM attacks to steal user credentials or personal information, spy on the victim, sabotage communications, and corrupt data.

How does a man-in-the-middle attack work?

To perform a successful man-in-the-middle attack, a hacker first needs to intercept a user’s web traffic. This can be done in a number of ways, including exploiting an unsecured Wi-Fi network or installing malware on the user’s device.

Once the hacker has placed themselves between two communicating parties, the hacker can either eavesdrop on the communication, or they can alter the communication. In either case, the hacker needs to decrypt the communication between the parties without the parties becoming aware that someone is in the middle of their communication.

How to prevent man-in-the-middle attacks?

While there’s no foolproof way to prevent man-in-the-middle attacks, the best ways to keep yourself as safe as possible online include downloading an antivirus program like Norton or Bitdefender, connecting only to safe Wi-Fi networks, visiting only HTTPS sites, and installing updates as soon as they’re available.

What are some famous man-in-the-middle attacks?

One of the most famous MITM attacks of the 21st century happened in 2011, when certificate authority DigiNotar was hacked. The hacker responsible for the attack issued fake certificates for popular sites like Google, and intercepted and monitored Iranian users’ web traffic. Every major ISP and search engine revoked their DigiNotar certificates, and the company went bankrupt.

There have also been several other notable man-in-the-middle attacks in recent years, involving the NSA, Lenovo, and Equifax.

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About the Author
Ben Martens
Ben Martens
Senior Editor
Updated on: April 22, 2024

About the Author

Ben Martens is a former cybersecurity journalist for SafetyDetectives with a background in internet ethics, malware testing, and public policy. He resides in Oregon, and when he's not advocating for the rights of internet users, he's walking with his dog and inventing stories with his daughter.