Is Certificate Pinning The Best Protection from MITM Attacks? 

As smartphones and mobile apps continue to gain widespread popularity, they become increasingly attractive targets for cyber attacks. A recent study revealed vulnerabilities in numerous app categories within the Android Store, with at least 16% lacking available fixes. In response, mobile app developers are turning to certificate pinning as a security measure to bolster the protection of their apps. Curious about how it works? Let’s get into the details in this blog. 

Understanding the Anatomy of MITM Attacks

Man-in-the-middle (MitM) attacks occur when an adversary intercepts or alters communication between mobile devices, granting them unauthorized access to sensitive information. In essence, these attacks empower perpetrators to monitor communications, tamper with messages, pilfer login credentials or encryption certificates from encrypted data streams, intercept confidential commercial or personal data, or even execute denial of service assaults against services accessed through mobile apps effortlessly.

 certificate pinning

You might question the security provided by Transport Layer Security (TLS), the encryption protocol commonly used to safeguard API traffic. Indeed, TLS implements a comprehensive framework to ensure that mobile apps communicate securely with legitimate backend servers. However, a MITM attacker can infiltrate this channel, deceiving the mobile app into believing it’s interacting with the authentic server. Consequently, the MITM gains visibility into all traffic, potentially manipulates it, and then transmits the altered data back to the backend service, all while maintaining encryption. Let’s now talk about the intended functionality of TLS and how it can be subverted from MITM attacks.

Also Read: Types of Man-in-the-Middle MITM Attacks You Should Know About 

The Vulnerability of SSL/TLS

Secure Socket Layer (SSL) and its successor Transport Layer Security (TLS) protocols serve as the bedrock of secure communication on the internet, encrypting data to prevent eavesdropping and tampering. However, the reliance on certificate authorities (CAs) to authenticate the identities of servers introduces a vulnerability. If an attacker can compromise the CA or intercept the c between the client and server to present a fraudulent certificate, they can execute an MITM attack with ease.

Certificate pinning serves as a robust countermeasure against the inherent weaknesses of traditional SSL/TLS verification methods. Instead of relying solely on the trust of CAs, certificate pinning enables applications to specify a set of trusted digital certificates or public keys associated with the servers they communicate with. This effectively binds the application to specific certificates, mitigating the risk of accepting fraudulent ones presented by attackers.

How Certificate Pinning Works?

 certificate pinning

1. Server Certificate and Trust Chain:

  • Communication relies on server certificates verifying server legitimacy.
  • Trust chain established through PKI.
  • The verification process involves multiple certificates and leads to a root certificate authority.

2. Subversion via MitM Tools:

  • MitM tools like mitmproxy intercept and manipulate traffic.
  • Self-signed certificates are generated and installed on the device’s trust store.
  • On-the-fly creation of leaf certificates for visited domains establishes a fake chain of trust.
  • Traffic is redirected to the MitM for interception, modification, or replay.

3. Compromise through Breaches or Improper Issuance:

  • Breaches or improper issuance by certificate authorities can compromise trust.
  • Large number of root certificate authorities installed on devices create vulnerability.
  • Attacker-issued certificates could masquerade as legitimate ones for connected domains.

Advantages of Certificate Pinning

  1. Enhanced Security: By reducing reliance on external CAs, certificate pinning fortifies the security posture of applications, making them less susceptible to certificate-based attacks.
  2. Defense Against Compromised CAs: Even if a CA is compromised or issues fraudulent certificates, applications employing certificate pinning remain immune to such attacks.
  3. Granular Control: Developers can exercise granular control over the trust relationships between their applications and servers, bolstering security and integrity.

Best Practices for Certificate Pinning

 certificate pinning
  1. Identify Critical Endpoints: Determine which endpoints in your application handle sensitive data or transactions and prioritize them for certificate pinning.
  2. Pin Public Key or Certificate: Choose whether to pin the public key or the entire certificate. Pinning the public key provides flexibility in certificate updates while pinning the entire certificate offers more stringent validation.
  3. Use Multiple Pins: Pin multiple certificates or public keys to nullify the risk of a single point of failure. This includes pinning backup certificates or keys in case the primary ones become compromised or outdated.
  4. Regularly Update Pins: Stay proactive by regularly updating the pinned certificates or public keys to align with certificate renewals or changes. Automated mechanisms for pin updates can streamline this process.
  5. Implement Pinning at Code Level: Integrate certificate pinning directly into your application’s code rather than relying solely on configuration files. This ensures greater control and reduces the risk of configuration errors.
  6. Secure Storage of Pins: Safeguard the pins within your application to prevent tampering or extraction by malicious actors. Utilize secure storage mechanisms such as encryption or obfuscation to protect the pins.
  7. Fail Securely: Define clear failure states when pin validation fails to prevent potential security vulnerabilities. This may include terminating the connection, raising alerts, or implementing fallback mechanisms for graceful degradation.
  8. Thorough Testing: Conduct comprehensive testing of certificate pinning implementation across various scenarios, including certificate expiration, renewal, and rotation. Test for both positive and negative scenarios to validate robustness.
  9. Monitor Pinning Health: Continuously monitor the health and effectiveness of certificate pinning within your application. Implement logging and monitoring mechanisms to detect anomalies or pin validation failures in real time.

Potential Challenges and Considerations

While certificate pinning offers a potent defense against MITM attacks, its implementation poses certain challenges and considerations:

  1. Maintenance Overhead: Managing pinned certificates necessitates periodic updates and maintenance to accommodate certificate renewals or changes.
  2. Increased Complexity: Implementing certificate pinning adds complexity to application development and deployment processes, requiring careful consideration and testing.
  3. Risk of Pinning Errors: Incorrectly implementing certificate pinning can lead to service disruptions or false positives, underscoring the importance of comprehensive testing and validation.


In the perpetual arms race between cyber attackers and defenders, certificate pinning emerges as a formidable weapon in the arsenal of cybersecurity professionals. By anchoring the trust of applications to specific certificates or public keys, certificate pinning fortifies the integrity of SSL/TLS communications, thwarting the insidious threat of Man-in-the-Middle attacks. While not impervious to challenges, the adoption of certificate pinning represents a proactive stride towards bolstering the security posture of modern applications in an increasingly hostile digital landscape.


Can certificate pinning be bypassed or circumvented by attackers?

While certificate pinning significantly raises the difficulty for attackers attempting to execute MITM attacks, it is not entirely immune to bypassing or circumvention. Sophisticated attackers may employ techniques such as reverse engineering or exploiting vulnerabilities in the application to subvert certificate pinning protections.

Is certificate pinning suitable for all types of mobile applications?

Certificate pinning can be beneficial for a wide range of mobile applications, particularly those handling sensitive data or transactions. However, the decision to implement certificate pinning should be based on a detailed risk evaluation and consideration of the application’s security requirements and user experience considerations.

How can developers ensure the effectiveness of certificate pinning in their applications?

Developers can ensure the effectiveness of certificate pinning by following best practices such as regularly updating pinned certificates, implementing pinning at the code level, and conducting thorough testing across various scenarios. Additionally, staying informed about emerging threats and evolving best practices is mandatory for maintaining the security of certificate pinning implementations.

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