Digital Eavesdropping: The Undetectable Man-in-the Middle

In ancient Europe, rulers had to go to the trouble of digging trenches and tunnels to snoop on what was being said behind their backs in the vicinity of their palace. People eventually realized that "the walls have ears" and became more conscious of their conversations around the palaces. In today's world, our devices are the gateways for snooping eavesdroppers.

The term ‘to eavesdrop’ comes from the habit of listening to discussions within a house while standing beneath the eaves of a tree by the house. Correspondingly, in the digital world, eavesdropping happens too. With the increasing accessibility of the internet across the globe, it has become one of the most common security breaches within cyber security. Recently, eavesdropping has gotten a lot of attention, especially with the rise of a plethora of diversified communication alternatives.


What is Digital Eavesdropping?

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SFIO CRACHO/Shutterstock

Digital eavesdropping is the interception of information without the knowledge or consent of at least one of the participants of a certain communication. It’s unauthorized monitoring of private communication amidst phone calls, instant messages, videoconferences, or fax transmissions. It happens when a third party intervenes in communication between a sender and a recipient. Eavesdropping allows hackers to get into the middle of communication taking place by means of the internet or any other communication medium. It can seriously compromise the security of an individual or an organization by getting access to sensitive information.

By its very nature, an eavesdropping attack is a passive security attack where a man-in-the-middle breaches a communication line just for the purpose of observing and making use of the information. This act of unauthorized sniffing of messages does not alter the content of the data; rather, the intention of the attacker is just to obtain the information that is transmitted.

In pursuit of sensitive and confidential information, an attacker intercepts a communication line, examines the content of the information, analyzes the data with an eavesdropping tool, and finally releases the data to the intended recipient. Hence, due to the absence of any form of alteration of the conveyed messages, it’s hard to detect eavesdropping attacks.


Eavesdroppers Gateway

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Cisco, one of the world’s biggest networking hardware companies, spotted the most typical entry points for eavesdropping attacks. The first case is when using public Wi-Fi. Attackers can place themselves in the middle of a network and a visitor’s device, gaining access to all transmitted data. The second alternative is to introduce malware into a device and install processing software on the victim’s device, which assists them in analyzing the nature of the transmitted message.

Eavesdropping assaults are hard to detect since neither the sender nor the receiver is aware of the attacks. One possible scenario for hackers to eavesdrop is to gain access to the communication line and observe the messages before releasing the message content without altering the content. In this kind of attack, the sender and recipient of messages wouldn’t know if they were attacked. To avoid these sorts of assaults, cyber security professionals suggest that it’s best to use encrypted communications.

However, even encrypted communicators may not entirely block hackers from intercepting a message. Attackers would still get in the middle of a communication line and would sniff for some clues to extract information using eavesdropping tools. Clues such as the sender’s and recipient’s location, the length of the message, or the frequency of the message. But still, there would be no modification of messages and data streams.


Preventing Eavesdroppers

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Eavesdropping might not result in alteration, loss, or failure of data and systems. But it can still impose a dangerous threat to security as it can disclose sensitive personal, organizational, government, and military confidential information.

Before transmitting communication, it’s critical to encrypt it so that attackers don’t have direct and complete access to the data. However, according to research published by Hindawi Publishing Corporation, the conventional security countermeasures used in networks may not work well due to the wireless medium’s open access to any node and the challenge of deploying centralized control mechanisms. Therefore, emphasis should be on prevention rather than trying to find out about an attack.

In addition, in cases where advanced data encryption and enhanced user authentication are required, experts advise implementing Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA). WPA is a Wi-Fi security protocol designed to create a secure wireless network. It is, however, always safer to follow the security protocol by assigning a strong Wi-Fi password, updating Wi-Fi passwords regularly, and disabling the device from being located by anyone.

Furthermore, setting up a Virtual Private Network (VPN) is a sensible move. A VPN masks IP addresses by allowing the network to route them through a specially configured remote server run by a VPN host. A VPN provides protection for devices’ locations and IP addresses; hence, any communication would run through a secured VPN server and the devices.


Photo: DC Studio/Shutterstock


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