recommended reading

A Tiny Technical Change in iOS 8 Could Stop Marketers Spying on You

A customer examines an iPhone 5s.

A customer examines an iPhone 5s. // Nati Harnik/AP

Whenever you walk around a major Western city with your phone’s Wi-Fi turned on, you are broadcasting your location to government agencies, marketing companies and location analytics firms.

In shopping malls, for instance, a firm called Euclid Analytics collects, in its own words, “the presence of the device, its signal strength, its manufacturer (Apple, Samsung, etc.), and a unique identifier known as its Media Access Control (MAC) address.” In London last year, one start-up installed a dozen recycling bins that sniffed MAC addresses from passers-by, effectively tracking people through the area via their phones. Such companies go to great lengths to explain that such information in not personally identifiable—except that repeated studies have shown that this data can indeed be used to infer a great deal about your life.

At the core of such tracking is the MAC address, a unique identification number tied to each device. Devices looking for a Wi-Fi network send out their MAC address to identify themselves. Wireless routers receive the signals—and addresses—even if a connection is never made. Companies like Euclid or its peer Turnstyle Solutions use the data to track footfall in stores, how people move about in shops, how long they linger in certain sections, and how often they return. Store-owners use the information to target shoppers with offers (paywall) or to move high-value items to highly-trafficked parts of the shop, among other things.

Even though stores may not mine this data to try to identify individuals, there are plenty of legitimate privacy concerns about the data collection, especially since people tend to be unaware that it is happening. Apple’s solution, as discovered by a Swiss programmer, is for iOS 8, the new operating system for iPhones which will be out later this year, to generate a random MAC addresses while scanning for networks. That means that companies and agencies that collect such information will not necessarily know when the same device (i.e., person) visits a store twice, or that the same device pops up in stores across the country or the world, suggesting a much-travelled owner.

This is not the first time Apple has fiddled around with the way it administer MAC addresses. The current operating system for iPhones, iOS 7, prevents app developersfrom using MAC addresses to track how many people have installed their apps or to target ads—again, for privacy reasons. The change in iOS 8 has wider ramifications because it doesn’t just affect developers who build iOS apps, but any company that uses the nature of wireless networking to identify a device.

But while Apple’s move is good for its customers and for their privacy, it is not an invisibility cloakIf there is one thing we have learned from the past year of exposés about government snooping, it is that people are easily gulled into surrendering their online privacyFor example, stores increasingly offer customers free Wi-Fi to convince customers to linger longer, but also to extract valuable data from them, such as name and other basic personal information, browsing patterns, and more.Apple’s change to how MAC addresses are used won’t prevent thatBy connecting to a Wi-Fi network, customers willingly give up such data and then some: A survey by Purple Wi-Fi, which provides tracking services for Wi-Fi networks to businesses in the UK, found that some 17% of consumers log on to internet banking from unsecured, public networks.

Reprinted with permission from Quartz. The original story can be found here

Threatwatch Alert

User accounts compromised

1 Million Online Gaming Accounts Exposed

See threatwatch report

JOIN THE DISCUSSION

Close [ x ] More from Nextgov
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from Nextgov.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Modernizing IT for Mission Success

    Surveying Federal and Defense Leaders on Priorities and Challenges at the Tactical Edge

    Download
  • Communicating Innovation in Federal Government

    Federal Government spending on ‘obsolete technology’ continues to increase. Supporting the twin pillars of improved digital service delivery for citizens on the one hand, and the increasingly optimized and flexible working practices for federal employees on the other, are neither easy nor inexpensive tasks. This whitepaper explores how federal agencies can leverage the value of existing agency technology assets while offering IT leaders the ability to implement the kind of employee productivity, citizen service improvements and security demanded by federal oversight.

    Download
  • Effective Ransomware Response

    This whitepaper provides an overview and understanding of ransomware and how to successfully combat it.

    Download
  • Forecasting Cloud's Future

    Conversations with Federal, State, and Local Technology Leaders on Cloud-Driven Digital Transformation

    Download
  • IT Transformation Trends: Flash Storage as a Strategic IT Asset

    MIT Technology Review: Flash Storage As a Strategic IT Asset For the first time in decades, IT leaders now consider all-flash storage as a strategic IT asset. IT has become a new operating model that enables self-service with high performance, density and resiliency. It also offers the self-service agility of the public cloud combined with the security, performance, and cost-effectiveness of a private cloud. Download this MIT Technology Review paper to learn more about how all-flash storage is transforming the data center.

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.