Apple's iOS8 adds additional layer of security to wifi scanning

James O'Malley Internet, iPhone, Wi-Fi Leave a Comment

Another new tidbit from Apple’s forthcoming iOS8 has emerged – the operating system will apparently disguise your phone’s “MAC” address when scanning for wifi.

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The MAC address has nothing to do with Apple – but actually stands for “Media Access Control” address – a unique (if not by design, but by statistical chance) 48-bit identification number given to all wifi and (wired) ethernet devices so that they can be identified by a permanent identifier.

They’re useful, because it means that even if your IP address changes, your device can still be identified – a great example of this is on the London Underground’s wifi network, where there’s no need to login with a username and password because regardless of when and where you connect to it, the system will figure out who you are based on your MAC address.

Anyway – according to encryption enthusiast @FredericJacobs, in iOS8 apparently rather cleverly when you scan for wifi networks the MAC address broadcast by your phone will be randomly generated – disguising who you are. Only when you hit connect on the network you want to join will it share your actual MAC address.

This is useful because if you walk around with your wifi switched on, it is possible for others to passively ‘listen’ and log your MAC address.

Whilst this may sound harmless, there’s very real future surveillance issues – only last year there was a controversy over some creepy bins that would log when your MAC address was detected to figure out where you’re going by analysing your daily commute, and display relevant advertising off the back of it. Whilst this is a relatively benign use (if not a little creepy), it is easy to imagine how the same technology could be used for mass surveillance or by criminals.

With iOS8’s new feature though, it means that the creepy bins wouldn’t be able to figure out who you are – but MAC address identification would continue to work once you consciously choose to join another wifi network.

Its very clever indeed – and like Jacobs says – here’s hoping it becomes an industry standard.

By James O'Malley | June 9th, 2014