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Apple Adds MAC Privacy Tweak for iOS 8, Has an Ulterior Motive?

By William Peacock, Esq. | Last updated on

Not Mac, but MAC.

A Media Access Control address (or MAC address) is unique identifier, similar to a serial number, assigned to any device that connects to networks, such as computers, tablets, smartphones, or gaming consoles. The network uses a device's MAC address to know where to transmit data. And since a MAC address is usually attached to a device for life, and is broadcasted to nearby networks, such as Wi-Fi hotspots, it has a significant drawback: it can be tracked.

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Companies can use your MAC address to track your phone's location as you walk around a mall, or linger in a lingerie store, or feed your caffeine addiction at a coffee shop, even if you aren't connected to the network.

Apple is currently testing a feature for its upcoming iOS 8 that will spoof MAC addresses to protect your privacy. But they may have an ulterior motive, as the company is beefing up their own tracking program, iBeacon, which doesn't rely on MAC addresses.

Don't Track My MAC

Theoretically, this is a privacy positive. MAC addresses are broadcast to nearby networks, even if you aren't actually trying to connect to networks. Stores can track individual devices to see where you walk, what stores you visit, etc. One infamous startup even installed MAC-sniffing trashcans in London to track people's movement across the city -- so long as your Wi-Fi radio isn't completely turned off, you're basically carrying a GPS device that tracks your MAC address's every move.

Apple's tweak is simple, and not foolproof: it spoofs MAC addresses during this network sniffing phase -- until you connect, you're device is disguised. This won't protect you if you actually connect to a network, such as a coffee shop's free Wi-Fi, but it will keep marketers from tracking your day-to-day movements, reports Quartz.

iBeacon Beefed Up

Interestingly enough, Apple's also beefing up their own location-aware tracking program, iBeacon. Instead of using Wi-Fi and MAC addresses, it uses low-power Bluetooth to identify when you are near a participating business. The company is currently testing a feature that will add an unobtrusive icon to your lock screen when you are near one of these locations. The icon directs you to install or open that company's app -- i.e., Starbuck's app icon appears as you pass their store.

Apple Insider has screenshots and additional information on the currently very experimental feature, which fortunately, is both unobtrusive and appears to have an opt-out feature.

Net Positive

For the privacy conscious, this is a net positive. While Apple may be motivated to push their similar iBeacon program by blocking MAC-tracking, the big difference is the opt-out mechanism -- you can't opt out of MAC sniffing that you didn't even know was happening (unless you want to manually turn Wi-Fi on and off each day), but you can say no to iBeacon.

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