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Man-in-the-middle attack

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Title: Man-in-the-middle attack  
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Subject: Multi-factor authentication, Rogue DHCP, IMSI-catcher, Salted Challenge Response Authentication Mechanism, Malware
Collection: Computer Network Security, Cryptographic Attacks, Transport Layer Security
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Man-in-the-middle attack

In cryptography and computer security, a man-in-the-middle attack (often abbreviated to MITM, MitM, MIM, MiM or MITMA) is an attack where the attacker secretly relays and possibly alters the communication between two parties who believe they are directly communicating with each other. One example is active eavesdropping, in which the attacker makes independent connections with the victims and relays messages between them to make them believe they are talking directly to each other over a private connection, when in fact the entire conversation is controlled by the attacker. The attacker must be able to intercept all relevant messages passing between the two victims and inject new ones. This is straightforward in many circumstances; for example, an attacker within reception range of an unencrypted Wi-Fi wireless access point, can insert himself as a man-in-the-middle.[1]

As an attack that aims at circumventing mutual authentication, or lack thereof, a man-in-the-middle attack can succeed only when the attacker can impersonate each endpoint to their satisfaction as expected from the legitimate other end. Most cryptographic protocols include some form of endpoint authentication specifically to prevent MITM attacks. For example, TLS can authenticate one or both parties using a mutually trusted certification authority.


  • Example of an attack 1
  • Defenses against the attack 2
  • Forensic analysis of MITM attacks 3
  • Quantum cryptography 4
  • Beyond cryptography 5
  • Implementations 6
  • See also 7
  • References 8
  • External links 9

Example of an attack

An illustration of the man-in-the-middle attack

Suppose Alice wishes to communicate with Bob. Meanwhile, Mallory wishes to intercept the conversation to eavesdrop and optionally deliver a false message to Bob.

First, Alice asks Bob for his

  • Finding Hidden Threats by Decrypting SSL, SANS Institute

External links

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  • Aspidistra transmitter – a British radio transmitter used for World War II "intrusion" operations, an early man-in-the-middle attack.
  • Babington Plot – the plot against Elizabeth I of England, where Francis Walsingham intercepted the correspondence.
  • Boy-in-the-browser – a simpler type of web browser MITM
  • Computer security – the design of secure computer systems.
  • Cryptanalysis – the art of deciphering encrypted messages with incomplete knowledge of how they were encrypted.
  • Digital signature – a cryptographic guarantee of the authenticity of a text, usually the result of a calculation only the author is expected to be able to perform.
  • Evil Maid Attack – attack used against full disk encryption systems
  • Interlock protocol – a specific protocol to circumvent a man-in-the-middle attack when the keys may have been compromised.
  • Key management – how to manage cryptographic keys, including generation, exchange and storage.
  • Key-agreement protocol – a cryptographic protocol for establishing a key in which both parties can have confidence.
  • Man-in-the-browser – a type of web browser MITM
  • Mutual authentication – how communicating parties establish confidence in one another's identities.
  • Password-authenticated key agreement – a protocol for establishing a key using a password.
  • Quantum cryptography – the use of quantum mechanics to provide security in cryptography (while older methods rely on one-way functions).
  • Secure channel – a way of communicating resistant to interception and tampering.
  • Spoofing attack

See also

Notable man-in-the-middle attack implementations include the following:


[6] In 2013, the

A notable non-cryptographic man-in-the-middle attack was perpetrated by a Belkin wireless network router in 2003. Periodically, it would take over an HTTP connection being routed through it: this would fail to pass the traffic on to destination, but instead itself respond as the intended server. The reply it sent, in place of the web page the user had requested, was an advertisement for another Belkin product. After an outcry from technically literate users, this 'feature' was removed from later versions of the router's firmware.[5]

Beyond cryptography

Quantum cryptography protocols typically authenticate part or all of their classical communication with an unconditionally secure authentication scheme e.g. Wegman-Carter authentication.[4]

Quantum cryptography

  • IP address of the server
  • DNS name of the server
  • X.509 certificate of the server
    • Is the certificate self signed?
    • Is the certificate signed by a trusted CA?
    • Has the certificate been revoked?
    • Has the certificate been changed recently?
    • Do other clients, elsewhere on the Internet, also get the same certificate?

Captured network traffic from what is suspected to be a MITM attack can be analyzed in order to determine if it really was a MITM attack or not. Important evidence to analyze when doing network forensics of a suspected TLS MITM attack include:[3]

Forensic analysis of MITM attacks

See key-agreement protocol for a classification of protocols that use various forms of keys and passwords to prevent man-in-the-middle attacks.

The integrity of public keys must generally be assured in some manner, but need not be secret. Passwords and shared secret keys have the additional secrecy requirement. Public keys can be verified by a certificate authority, whose public key is distributed through a secure channel (for example, with a web browser or OS installation). Public keys can also be verified by a web of trust that distributes public keys through a secure channel (for example by face-to-face meetings).

  • DNSSEC: Secure DNS extensions
  • Public key infrastructures: Transport Layer Security is an example of implementing PKI over Tcp protocol. This is used to prevent Man-in-the-middle attack over a secured HTTP connection on internet. Client and Server exchange PKI certificates issued and verified by a common certificate authority.
    • PKI mutual authentication: The main defense in a PKI scenario is mutual authentication. In this case applications from both client and server mutually validates their certificates issued by a common root certificate authority. Virtual Private Networks do mutual authentication before sending data over the created secure tunnel, however mutual authentication over internet for HTTP connections are seldom enforced.
  • Certificate pinning
  • A recorded media attestment (assuming that the user's identity can be recognized from the recording), which can either be:
    • A verbal communication of a shared value for each session (as in ZRTP)
    • An audio/visual communication of the public key hash (which can be easily distributed via PKI)[2]
  • Stronger mutual authentication, such as:
    • Secret keys (which are usually high information entropy secrets, and thus more secure), or
    • Passwords (which are usually low information entropy secrets, and thus less secure)
  • Latency examination, such as with long cryptographic hash function calculations that lead into tens of seconds; if both parties take 20 seconds normally, and the calculation takes 60 seconds to reach each party, this can indicate a third party
  • Second (secure) channel verification
  • Testing is being carried out on deleting compromised certificates from issuing authorities on the actual computers and compromised certificates are being exported to sandbox area before removal for analysis

Various defenses against MITM attacks use authentication techniques that include:

All cryptographic systems that are secure against MITM attacks require an additional exchange or transmission of information over some kind of secure channel. Many key agreement methods have been developed, with different security requirements for the secure channel. Interlock Protocol attempts to address this.

Defenses against the attack

This example shows the need for Alice and Bob to have some way to ensure that they are truly using each other's public keys, rather than the public key of an attacker. Otherwise, such attacks are generally possible, in principle, against any message sent using public-key technology. Fortunately, there are a variety of techniques that help defend against MITM attacks.

  • Bob thinks that this message is a secure communication from Alice.
  • However, because it was actually encrypted with Mallory's key, Mallory can decrypt it, read it, modify it (if desired), re-encrypt with Bob's key, and forward it to Bob:
    Alice     Mallory "Meet me in the windowless van on 22nd Ave!" [encrypted with Bob's key] →     Bob
  • Alice encrypts a message with what she believes to be Bob's key, thinking that only Bob can read it:
    Alice "Meet me at the bus stop!" [encrypted with Mallory's key] →     Mallory     Bob
  • Mallory replaces Bob's key with her own, and relays this to Alice, claiming that it is Bob's key:
    Alice     ← [Mallory's key] Mallory     Bob
  • Bob responds with his encryption key:
    Alice     Mallory     ← [Bob's key] Bob
  • Mallory relays this message to Bob; Bob cannot tell it is not really from Alice:
    Alice     Mallory "Hi Bob, it's Alice. Give me your key." →     Bob
  • Bob     Mallory →     "Hi Bob, it's Alice. Give me your key." Alice
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