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What is MAC Cloning?

Changing the MAC address can help maintain some level of anonymity while accessing public Wi-Fi networks or other public networks.

When you hear about cloning in relation to cyber hackers or online activity, you probably think of IP addresses and Internet connections. However, your MAC (Media Access Control) address can be cloned, too.

You may find yourself in a coffee shop, with sweat dripping from your nervous brow.  The public WiFi network name is showing up three times in your smart device’s list of connections. What if you click on the wrong network? Are evil clones waiting to rob you of your personal information? 

Let’s take a look at what a MAC address is, how MAC cloning differs from IP address cloning, how MAC cloning can impact your cybersecurity, and how to protect your MAC address.

Professionals involved in network testing or research might use MAC cloning to simulate various network scenarios.

Secrets revealed: What is a MAC address 

Technological terms can feel like they’re dark and full of secrets. But a little knowledge of the basics can bring everything into the light. For example, the mysterious MAC address works as the physical identifier of your smart device to distinguish the device from others on your LAN (local area network)

MAC address cloning will allow a hacker to break into your network and send malicious data by posing as your device. That’s why it’s vital to understand how a MAC address works. 

How a MAC address works and differs from an IP address

A MAC is assigned to every manufactured ethernet or WiFI device. It uses a hardware identification number that consists of 12 alphanumeric characters and is 48-bits long. While it may sound like a MAC functions just as an IP address does, the two are not the same. 

An IP address is easier to clone than a MAC. But MAC address cloning can have just as detrimental an impact on your sensitive information.

Here are some of the ways a MAC address is different from, and similar to, an IP address:

  • A MAC address gives your smart device an identification, which allows the other devices in your local network to recognize and communicate with you.
  • An IP address is the identifier which allows your general physical location to be seen by any online connections across the globe.
  • Both MAC and IP addresses are needed for transferred data to reach its destination.
  • A MAC address assigns an actual physical location to your smart device, whereas an IP address offers a general proximity. For example, while your MAC address can pinpoint to your street and house number, an IP address is assigned by your service provider, and may track your general, approximate location like the region or city where you’re connecting to the Internet.
  • A MAC address is a permanent assignment and unique to each device, whereas an IP address may fluctuate and, depending on your Internet service provider (ISP), could be shared by multiple devices within your network.

Types of MAC addresses and how they’re used

Currently, there are over 256 trillion unique MAC addresses possibilities. Each device should come from the manufacturer with its own, individually assigned address. Those possible combinations might run out by 2100.  

Google, Cisco, and Hewlett Packard are among some of the main manufacturers responsible for assigning MAC addresses.

There are three main types of MAC addresses, which differ in how their identifying serial numbers begin, and which you may see on the devices you purchase. Each type of address may experience MAC cloning. The impact could devastate the data on your device, on selected devices, or on your entire LAN (local area network).

Here are the three types of MAC addresses and how they’re used:

  • Broadcast: The virtual megaphone of MAC addresses. A Broadcast MAC can send a message from your single source device to every device on your network.
  • Multicast: A multicast address is more like the Spotify playlist of MACs, as it picks and chooses the devices it utilizes. This address will connect with chosen, specified devices within your network rather than every device.
  • Unicast: This MAC address allows for a more private, one-on-one connection between devices. Basically, it allows your single device to send data to another specified, singular device.

Why is a MAC address necessary?

Since every device with an Internet connection receives an IP address, it may seem like MAC addresses aren’t even necessary. However, in order for your device to function properly, you need both a MAC and an IP address.

An IP address allows you to connect globally, while a MAC address is vital to identify your device to, and to communicate with, other devices in your LAN. If a cybercriminal manages to snag your address, MAC cloning could expose your entire LAN to malware.


The dangers of MAC address cloning

Cybercriminals can use MAC cloning attacks, also known as MAC spoofing attacks, to infiltrate LANs and expose weaknesses in a network’s authentication system. This method gives the hack attacker access to the confidential information on any device that recognizes the MAC address used.

Although the hardwiring of devices makes changing a MAC address almost impossible, there are ways for hackers to mask their own MAC address with one that already exists in your network.

How do MAC cloning attacks work?

Typically, hackers will target a switched LAN in a MAC address cloning attack. This means that the LAN can be switched on and off, and a cybercriminal will target a switch device as a point of attack.

MAC cloning attackers may clone the address of a device by turning on a device that has been turned off from the LAN. They will then use this cloned address to intercept LAN messages or manipulate a message shared between MAC addresses to:

  • Collect confidential and personal data
  • Send computer viruses and malware 
  • Use mined data such as banking account information to create fraudulent accounts 

Are MAC cloning and MAC flooding the same thing?

Although MAC cloning and MAC flooding both target MAC addresses and hope to achieve similar goals, these cyber attacks are carried out by slightly different methods.

MAC cloning involves the impersonation of a MAC address to gain access to the local network and expose sensitive information. Although this attack can be used in conjunction with MAC flooding, it’s often used as a solo powerfully disruptive form of attack. 

On the other hand, MAC flooding sends multiple packets to the LAN in hopes of overwhelming its system. The LAN can no longer process any of its traffic, and its switches are flooded with the packets. This can cause the network to crash and generate a DoS (denial of service) message.

The increasing sophistication of MAC cloning attacks 

According to MicroSoft, MAC cloning hackers may lurk in your LAN for 146 days before they’re detected. And according to the 2020 Webroot Threat Report, by 2019, almost 94% of malware developed the ability to constantly change code and evade detection.

Undetected MAC cloning attacks could also leave your system vulnerable to even greater cybersecurity threats, such as malware. Thankfully, there are steps you can take to help prevent a MAC cloning attack and protect your local network.

These steps include:

  • Frequently checking your LAN to ensure two duplicate addresses aren’t sending messages
  • Using bandwidth monitors and traffic analyzers  

What Is My IP Address cares about your cybersecurity

Check out the What Is My IP Address website for tools to enhance your cybersecurity and insights  into IT terms, hacker methods, and the latest trends to protect your online privacy.

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