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Case study: How a Man-in-the-middle attack caused over $700 million in losses!

October 20, 2023
Posted by Andre Marion

It looks like something out of a movie. But this is as real as it gets: the cautionary tale of how criminals exploited a patched vulnerability to deploy a man-in-the-middle attack to gain access to multiple databases of one of America’s biggest credit reporting agencies and steal the personal information of 147 million citizens.

This is a great case study. We’re including a brief recap on man-in-the-middle attacks, but you can skip to the meat and bones.

What is a Man-in-the-middle Attack?

Man-in-the-middle (MITM) is a type of cyber attack in which an unauthorized party intercepts communication between two entities without their knowledge and insert themselves in the “middle” of the transfer. The attackers listen and manipulate information being exchanged, allowing them to steal information and send malicious links while remaining undetected.

It's like a devious translator modifying conversation between two individuals who speak different languages.

Example of a Man-in-the-middle Attack

MitM attacks are a type of session hijacking where hackers exploit real-time conversations or data transfers by breaking the original link and inserting themselves in the middle. There are different ways to implement such attacks, and here’s an example in 2 steps:

Step 1: Breaking the link

Example of a Man-in-the-middle Attack
  • An attacker leverages packet sniffing tools to analyze vulnerable network traffic. These tools can intercept all information passing through it, regardless of where they are addressed.
  • When a user attaempts to log in, the attacker captures their credentials and redirects them to a counterfeit website.
  • The fake website then collects data from the user, which is used on the real website to grant the attacker access to the target’s information.

Step 2: The devious mediation

Example of a Man-in-the-middle Attack, communications flow
  • Capitalizing on the previously intercepted data, an attacker impersonates a trusted website’s chat service.
  • They engage the target in conversation, fooling them into believing they're speaking with a legitimate website representative (which could be a bank, for example).
  • Simultaneously, they chat with the actual website, providing the necessary credentials to achieve their goals, such as gaining entry to a company’s network, access to funds, installing malware, or anything else.

How Does a Man-in-the-middle Attack Occur?

MITM attacks can be carried out in a variety of ways, but some of the most common methods include:

  • Wi-Fi eavesdropping: Attackers can set up fake Wi-Fi hotspots or hack into legitimate Wi-Fi networks to intercept user traffic.
  • DNS spoofing: by spoofing DNS records, which are used to translate domain names into IP addresses, hackers can cause users to be redirected to malicious websites without their knowledge.
  • SSL hijacking: Criminals will intercept and modify SSL certificates, which are used to encrypt traffic between websites and users. By doing so, they are able to capture sensitive data, such as login credentials and credit card numbers.

The Equifax Breach: A Deep Dive

In 2017, the personal data of hundreds of millions of people was stolen from Equifax, one of the three big credit reporting agencies that assess the financial health of nearly adult in the US.  

Exploiting the Vulnerability: Apache Struts at the Center

The origin of the Equifax crisis can be traced to March 2017 when a critical vulnerability, identified as CVE-2017-5638, emerged in the open-source web application framework Apache Struts. This framework, heavily embedded within Equifax's operations, would become the initial infiltration point. 

Note for CISOs: Patches for this vulnerability were available, but Equifax lagged in installing the security updates.

Attack Vector: A Closer Look at the Man-in-the-middle Methodology

The attackers capitalized on the unpatched Struts vulnerability, initiating their assault via a consumer complaint web portal. But what transforms this from an intrusion to a man-in-the-middle attack is the subsequent deployment of a malicious Java application, masquerading as a legitimate Equifax tool. As customers interfaced with what they believed to be an authentic Equifax application, their data traffic was being intercepted and manipulated in real time, granting attackers unprecedented access to sensitive data.

Stolen data included consumers’ names, addresses, dates of birth, social security numbers, and credit card numbers.

Note for CISOs: The systems weren't adequately segmented from one another, allowing the attackers to move from the infected web portal to multiple servers and databases.

Operational and Management Lapses: Equifax’s Missteps

In hindsight, Equifax's response was riddled with questionable decisions. The six-week delay in disclosing the breach after its discovery is a reminder of the reputational ramifications of slow response strategies. But that was one of many missteps. Internally, Equifax missed crucial clues. 

Note for CISOS: A CISO would immediately identify the absent security layers: unencrypted sensitive data, a lack of multi-factor authentication, and the delay in patching a known vulnerability.

Broader Implications: Beyond Just a Data Breach

While the immediate fallout of the breach centers around stolen personal information of over 147 million Americans, the damages went much further. The breach is a tale of technical vulnerabilities and exploitation and underscores systemic issues within the management of Credit Reporting Agencies (CRAs)

Conclusions on the Equifax Breach: Beyond Technical Lapses

The Equifax breach is an alarming testament to how a seemingly minor technical oversight can spiral into a catastrophe. While the breach was facilitated by a failure to patch known software vulnerabilities, the subsequent mishandling further amplified its effects.

Ultimately, this breach cost Equifax over $700 million in damages, including the cost of investigation, fixing damages, and compensating customers.

Of course, the impact of such a breach extends way past the dollar signs: 

  • Loss of revenue: due to business interruption.
  • Reputation damage: making it more challenging to attract and retain customers.
  • Increased compliance costs: implementing new measures to meet regulatory requirements.

Final Note to CISOS

MITM attacks prey on technical and human vulnerabilities. It's a reminder that our network infrastructures are only as robust as the least informed employee with access.

While technical defenses like encryption, multi-factor authentication, and diligent patching are critical, an educated and vigilant workforce serves as a formidable first line of defense.

Here are a couple of things to reinforce with your team:

  • Use a VPN to encrypt their internet traffic and protect against eavesdropping
  • Avoid using public Wi-Fi networks, as they’re often unsecured and vulnerable to MITM attacks.

CISOs and cybersecurity teams are under tremendous pressure, often competing for qualified employees. While there are outstanding technical tools to test and track employees’ cybersecurity prowess, the key to engaging employees isn’t automation. It’s actionable videos, quizzes, infographics, the latest cyber news, and answers to common questions written in a style they can understand and share with their families.

It’s easy to use and cost-effective. And it’s branded and customized so all the content comes from the IT team. That’s the Aware Force business model that generates unsolicited praise from employees and fierce loyalty from our customers. Check out our extensive cyber library and our terrific twice-monthly cybersecurity newsletter — all branded for you.   

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