How Apple iOS 8 eases some privacy concerns

The next major upgrade of Apple's mobile operating system will hide the unique identifier of the iPhone and iPad, making the devices harder to track

When Apple releases iOS 8 in the fall, corporate employees who use their iPhones and iPads for work will have better privacy protection when walking in places with Wi-Fi networks.

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The next major version of Apple's mobile operating system will hide the device's unique identifier called a media access control (MAC) address, which is sometimes used to track people in retail stores and other locations.

A mobile device will constantly broadcast its MAC address to every hotspot it passes. Retailers will gather the data, so marketers can examine logs to gather useful information, such as identifying repeat shoppers or determining how much time people spend in a store.

If a person actually connects to the Wi-Fi network, then it is possible to assign real names to the MAC address. Governments and criminals could do the same by setting up their own Wi-Fi hotspots.

The latter is not so farfetched. Documents released by former U.S. National Security Agency Edward Snowden showed that Canada's electronic spy agency gathered device data when people used a Canadian airport's Wi-Fi network. The information was used to track the mobile devices for days after people left the terminal, CBS News reported in January.

To make tracking more difficult, iOS 8 will generate random addresses, using the actual MAC address only when connecting to a network. Networks use the identifier in issuing a temporary Internet protocol address to let the device online.

"Randomizing MAC addresses are a good thing for privacy and more secure usage of Wi-Fi hot spots," said Pankaj Gupta, chief executive of Amtel, which provides cloud-based mobile device management.

The iOS 8 function could mess up firewalls that use MAC addresses to filter devices trying to log into a corporate networks, Gupta said Tuesday. However, that kind of filtering is considered "weak security anyway."

"We see this as a good step and not a huge impact for what we (as an MDM vendor) need to do to secure mobile devices and data," he said.

While a "privacy win for consumers," sending bogus addresses would not stop a device from broadcasting the networks it had recently connected to, including corporate networks, Joe DeMesy, security associate at consultancy Bishop Fox, said.

Devices broadcast network information while constantly looking for familiar hotspots, DeMesy said. "It's still trivial to detect where a device has previously been."

Nevertheless, within a retail store gathering bogus MAC addresses in trying to track customers would lead to "really horrible metrics" for customer buying habits, David Bryan, senior security consultant for Trustwave, said.

Device manufacturers in general will likely add more privacy features in time in order to appease customers, Bob O'Donnell, analyst for TECHnalysis Research, said.

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"As people start to get more aware of how much they are actually being tracked, I think there's going to be a lot of concerns that get raised," he said.

Another privacy feature being added to iOS 8 is to make DuckDuckGo the default search engine in the Safari browser. DuckDuckGo is considered more secure than competitors because it does not track users or collect and store personal information.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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