What is a Downgrade Attack and How Does it Work?

Downgrade Attacks

Downgrade attacks in cybersecurity exploit your system’s vulnerabilities, forcing it to use outdated, less secure protocols. This dangerous trick can result in data theft or even a system takeover. Hackers manipulate network communication, fooling your system to downgrade its security.

Numerous downgrade attacks exist, like POODLE, FREAK, and Logjam, each with unique mechanisms and possible outcomes.

This article introduces you to SSL/TLS downgrade attacks and explains how to prevent them.

Table of Contents

  1. What is a Downgrade Attack?
  2. How Does a Downgrade Attack Work?
  3. Types of Downgrade Attacks
  4. Risks of Downgrade Attacks
  5. How to Protect Against Downgrade Attacks?
  6. Downgrade Attacks Examples

What is a Downgrade Attack?

A downgrade attack, also known as a version rollback attack or bidding down attack, is a type of cryptographic attack that exploits backward compatibility in systems or protocols, such as the SSL/TLS protocol, to force a secure connection to use weaker or older encryption algorithms or cipher suites.

This attack takes advantage of web servers or applications that support older versions of security protocols, undermining the target system. Sometimes, a browser exploit can facilitate the downgrade of communication to less secure versions.

How Does a Downgrade Attack Work?

To carry out a downgrade attack, hackers intercept and manipulate your system’s communication, tricking it into using less secure protocols. You may wonder, how does a downgrade attack work? The process is a bit technical, but let’s break it down using the TLS example.

A TLS downgrade attack is an attack method that exploits vulnerabilities in outdated versions of major browsers or web applications to gain access to sensitive data.
Here’s how it works:

When a user attempts to connect to a web server that supports HTTPS (HTTP over TLS/SSL), the web browser and the server negotiate a secure connection to ensure the confidentiality and integrity of the transmitted data. The server sends a list of supported cryptographic protocols and encryption algorithms during this negotiation process.

The attacker intercepts this communication via a man-in-the-middle attack and manipulates it to remove the more secure options, leaving only the outdated or weaker protocols intact. This manipulation often exploits loopholes in the communication channels or uses malicious scripts.

As a result, when the web browser receives the modified list, it’s forced to choose from the compromised options, leading to an HTTPS downgrade. The connection is established using a lower-quality encryption mode or even over plain HTTP, which lacks encryption altogether.

The user may not notice any immediate difference in the browsing experience since the web page still loads. However, the connection security is reduced, making it susceptible to eavesdropping and interception by the attacker.

Any sensitive data exchanged between the user and the web server, such as login credentials, credit card information, or personal details, is now vulnerable to being captured and exploited by the attacker.

Despite the efforts of development teams to patch vulnerabilities and update security protocols, the success of a TLS downgrade attack depends on the use of outdated software or the failure to enforce secure communication standards, leaving many users and systems at risk.

Types of Downgrade Attacks

We’ll now explore various types of downgrade attacks. Knowing how these attacks work and what they target will help you better protect your systems and data. Each presents unique challenges and exploits different vulnerabilities.


POODLE targets SSL 3.0 by exploiting its security loopholes. The acronym POODLE stands for Padding Oracle On Downgraded Legacy Encryption and traces back to 2014.

Its main aim is to force a server-client connection to revert to a less secure version, SSL 3.0, making it easier to decrypt sensitive data. The POODLE attack can allow hackers to obtain sensitive information such as login credentials or credit card numbers.

The good news is that it’s easy to prevent it. All you have to do is disable SSL 3.0 on your server. Moreover, most modern servers and browsers connect exclusively via TLS 1.2 and TLS 1.3, so this attack can only occur on legacy and obsolete platforms.


FREAK stands for Factoring RSA Export Keys. This downgrade attack manipulates the secure connection, forcing it to use weaker encryption. The attacker then breaks the weaker encryption to intercept or alter the data.

FREAK exploits the weakness in the RSA encryption algorithm, which still supports ‘export-grade’ encryption. These are legacy policies from the ’90s when the US government limited encryption strength for international use. Some servers still support this weaker encryption, making them vulnerable to FREAK attacks.

Therefore, while RSA encryption is theoretically robust, the drawback lies in weakened RSA keys for export purposes, which FREAK attackers exploit. To protect yourself, ensure your server doesn’t support export-grade encryption.


SLOTH stands for Security Losses from Obsolete and Truncated Transcript Hashes. It targets protocols like TLS and SSL, which may still support weak hash algorithms such as MD5 or SHA-1.

In a SLOTH attack, attackers intercept communications between two parties and manipulate the handshake process to force the use of a truncated hash function. Instead of the full hash output, only a portion is used, allowing attackers to launch collision and pre-image attacks.

To prevent such an attack, always use strong cryptographic algorithms, such as SHA-256 or higher for hashing and AES for encryption.


A Logjam attack targets the Diffie-Hellman key exchange by exploiting weak parameters, often small prime numbers, making it prone to discrete logarithm computations.

In the attack, cyber-thieves intercept and downgrade the key exchange, exploiting vulnerabilities to efficiently compute the discrete logarithm (a mathematical function that tells you how many times you need to multiply a specific number by itself to get another number) and retrieve the shared secret key.

To stop Logjam attacks, use stronger cryptographic parameters, disable support for all DHE_EXPORT cipher suites, and keep cryptographic libraries updated.


BEAST, or Browser Exploit Against SSL/TLS, targets SSL/TLS encryption protocols’ cipher block chaining (CBC) mode, allowing attackers to decrypt HTTPS cookies. It exploits a CBC vulnerability by using a previous session’s cipher text to predict the next block’s plain text, thereby accessing sensitive information such as user session IDs.

To defend against BEAST, ensure regular system updates and consider transitioning to more secure encryption modes.

Risks of Downgrade Attacks

Downgrade attacks can disrupt the integrity of your online communications, forcing systems to use an outdated, less secure protocol, which is easier for attackers to exploit.

Your data confidentiality is at stake. While downgrade attacks run in the background, sensitive information, like personal data or financial details, could be intercepted and stolen.

In rare scenarios, attackers could use downgrade attacks to bring down your system entirely, causing significant downtime. These risks aren’t just theoretical; they’ve materialized in real-life incidents, causing substantial damage.

How to Protect Against Downgrade Attacks?

Downgrade attack prevention primarily requires keeping your browser, server, and apps updated and secure. Use the latest versions of your software, as these typically come with security updates that close vulnerabilities exploited by downgrade attacks.e

You should also regularly update your encryption protocols. Anything below TLS 1.2 is a no. Sticking with the highest level of security available and disabling unnecessary backward compatibility can also help prevent these attacks.

Monitoring your network traffic is another crucial step. Unusual patterns could indicate a downgrade attack. Therefore, it’s important to use intrusion detection systems (IDS) and intrusion prevention systems (IPS) to effectively identify and block such attacks.

Furthermore, use HTTPS over HTTP to ensure secure data transmission. Enabling HTTP Strict Transport Security (HSTS) can also prevent downgrade attacks by enforcing the use of HTTPS.

Downgrade Attacks Examples

Here are three high-profile companies affected by downgrade attacks:

  1. Google: Impacted by the POODLE vulnerability in 2014, Google disabled support for SSL 3.0 across its services to protect users’ data integrity and privacy.
  2. PayPal: Also impacted by the POODLE attack in 2014, PayPal implemented security measures to safeguard its users’ financial information and prevent potential data breaches.
  3. Microsoft: Affected by the Logjam attack in 2015, Microsoft took proactive steps to address the vulnerability and enhance the security of its software and services, ensuring protection against potential exploitation.

Without a swift response, all these data breaches compromising users’ personal and financial credentials could have resulted in significant liabilities, legal fees, and customer trust loss. Moreover, the costs associated with upgrading systems, implementing security measures, and conducting security audits would have added to the overall impact.

Bottom Line

SSL downgrade attacks could potentially cause significant data losses, but they rely on old servers that still support deprecated cryptographic protocols. In today’s digital space, 99% of websites and apps use the highly secure TLS 1.2 and TLS 1.3 protocols, which have protection mechanisms against such attacks.

You don’t have to worry about downgrade attacks unless you use legacy browsers or servers from the early noughties. Awareness of their existence will make you more cautious when you visit an old site or operate a server that hasn’t been updated in years.

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