Man In The Middle Attacks

2/7/2013 11:32:10 AM

What they are & what you can do about them

Human resources personnel follow the company's security protocol to the letter. A very strong 15-character password is used to log on to the cloud provider's server through its website. Before sensitive employee data is up­loaded to the cloud server, the security software has flagged no warnings about the Web interface. The URL address begins with "https," indi­cating that either the TLS (Transport Layer Security) or SSL (Secure Sock­ets Layer) protocol is encrypting the connection. But what the HR person does not know as the data uploads is that a malicious attacker is at the other end of the connection, seeking to broker the information he gathers to identity thieves. The attacker has also received the encryption keys from HR to access other company data on the cloud pro­vider's servers for an even bigger score.

MITM attack

An attacker, like the TG group, desires to covert the DNS system to send all internet traffic to the legitimate site to its own site.

The next day, after attempting to log on to the storage provider's Web interface and calling to report the problem, the hapless HR employee dis­covers that all employee records on the cloud servers have been stolen. Because the employee had followed security pro­cedures, there appears to be no take-­away lesson from this catastrophe.

Attack mechanics

This scenario illustrates one of many possible types of MITM (man-in-the-middle) attacks. In general, a MITM attack involves an attacker who tricks two parties into believing they are communicating directly with each other, when in fact all communications are passing through the attacker. What is particularly tricky about MITM attacks is that there is no evidence of this "middleman" as far as the legitimate users are concerned. Communications look as though they are encrypted, with "https" in the browser URL and security soft­ware indicating a protected connection. "Encryption just means that the pipe is secure," says Bruce Schneier, an independent security expert and author ( "It doesn't indicate [whom] you are talking to. You could be talking to Doctor Doom."

Other examples of MITM attacks are a key-logger program that intercepts data, or a phishing scheme through which an unsuspecting user uploads sensitive data to a bogus website. However, a common type of MITM attack takes ad­vantage of website vulnerabilities, when an attacker's program passes the authen­tication test and establishes a connec­tion between two endpoints. A security hole in a website, for example, can be hijacked with a simple Java command or even through HTML text with the help of rogue software to lay the groundwork for the attack.

SecureAuth mitigates the DNS/MITM attacks by creating and distributing (and revoking) client side certificates for the end users

SecureAuth mitigates the DNS/MITM attacks by creating and distributing (and revoking) client side certificates for the end users

"A very prevalent type of MITM at­tack is when someone hijacks a Web connection," says Anton Chuvakin, an analyst for Gartner ( "It executes a simple 'view your stocks online' message to you and then exe­cutes a 'sell-your-stock-and-then-send-some-money-to-Estonia' command to your bank."

Encryption isn’t everything

The main function of encryption is to create virtually impenetrable tunnels through which data transfers can occur. Authentication protocols also play a key role to ensure that the person or com­puter on the other end of a connection is the right one. But while encryption does indeed secure the connection so that it can be virtually impossible for a third-party intruder to decipher the data without the encryption keys, it does not guarantee authentication protection ei­ther, even though that is one of its func­tions. Still, using encryption as a means to thwart MITM attacks is essential.

"People break in through windows, but you still need to trust door locks," Schneier says. "Encryption will not magically keep you safe, just like a door lock will not magically keep you safe. It is a security tool [to use with other secu­rity tools]."

Cloud worry

A MITM attack can compromise fi­nancial records, customer or employee information, or other sensitive data, of course. But when all of this data is col­lectively pooled and uploaded through a single connection to a cloud provider, the potential threat can become very significant. A cloud provider's user in­terface is very often accessed through a Web connection, making cloud storage even more vulnerable, since MITM at­tacks largely involve Web browsers.

"If you use the cloud, there is a lot at stake if you lose access to [your cloud data due to] a MITM attack," Chuvakin says. "It is one thing for someone to hijack access to a Web forum, but it is something else altogether to lose access to all of your sensitive cloud data."

Do what you can

Beyond watching out for security warnings about invalid certificates and making sure there is an "https" in the URL (indicating a secure connection), there is, unfortunately, little the average non-expert user can do alone to thwart MITM attacks. Some published reports say users should consider the possibility of a potential MITM threat if they notice their computer is running slower than usual, for example. However, anything from a faulty hard drive to a software glitch could slow down a PC.

Users should also be on the lookout for warnings and alerts from security software that flags unsecured Web pages or connections. "If your browser says the certificate is invalid, then don't go there, especially if it is a sensitive site," Chuvakin says.

You need to also watch for basic common sense signs of a MITM or any other kind of attack. "Just paying atten­tion is good," Schneier says. "I mean, if you look at your bank statement and you sent $7 million to the Russian mafia, [then something is wrong]."

Source: Verizon data breach investigations report

Source: Verizon data breach investigations report

The best an enterprise can do to ward off MITM attacks is to keep soft­ware and anti-malware updates current and to make sure that security software and appliances are properly configured and monitored. While MITM attacks can be understood by the layperson on a conceptual level, assessing the intrica­cies of the attacks and understanding specific vulnerabilities requires the skills and talents of a professional.

"I would hire somebody that knows what they are doing and avoid ad­vice in newspaper articles," Schneier says. "Any specific advice you read about MITM is incomplete and prob­ably wrong, because the subject is too complicated."

Sources of MITM Attacks

Man in the middle attacks fall under the external agent category, which represent the vast majority of data breach incidents.

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