Why iOS 8 could be bad news for retailers who want to track your movements

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Joe Trimby

WifiThe dramatic rise in popularity of iPhones and iPads in recent years means that Apple has had to become even more effective in protecting against hackers and snoopers.

With the release of iOS 8, Apple is hoping to add an effective new weapon to its arsenal.

Programmer Frederic Jacobs recently revealed on Twitter that iOS 8 will generate a random MAC address.

This hidden feature means that Apple devices will no longer share a single genuine MAC address, which is a severe blow to many marketing analytics firms who have been tracking users and storing the data.

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The unique MAC address is currently tied to each device, which enables companies to track individuals. Devices must share their MAC address with wireless routers in order to access Wi-Fi networks.

MAC stands for media access control and is a widely used technology, not exclusive to iOS.

Some users who aren’t quite so tech savvy may be unaware that when they have their Wi-Fi turned on, they’re effectively broadcasting their location to companies who can potentially record this data. The device will broadcast the MAC address even if a connection is not requested, so simply having your Wi-Fi turned on in a town or city means that you’ve probably been tracked at some point.

Analytics firms sell this data, or their own software to record this data, to retailers so that they can understand their customer’s habits.

Smartphone offerTurnstyle Solutions are one of the market leaders in this sector and claim to ‘provide offline retailers with actionable insights to optimize their customer interaction’, which can help retailers understand the movements of customers in their store and the time spent browsing certain sections.

This allows retailers to target customers with specific offers and plan the layout of their store accordingly.

The majority of people are unaware that they’re being tracked in such a way, and there is no opt-out even if individual data isn’t being logged.

One notorious example of this was Renew London’s rubbish bins with targeted advertising; they recorded the patterns of users in certain shopping districts to plan their screen advertising on their high-tech bins.

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The tactic was eventually abandoned after an irritated public were made aware of the technique. It’s hard not to believe that our society is becoming increasingly Orwellian when discovering stories such as this.

However, Apple’s move won’t completely kill location tracking.

The presence of a device will still be detectable, but repeat visits will not be able to be analysed – so long term data can’t be acquired but short term data can still reveal certain patterns.

Aside from location tracking many companies offer free Wi-Fi to prolong the stay of their customers, but also to gather valuable personal information. This is a tactic that Apple’s changes won’t derail and we might see this technique employed more widely

iBeaconSome people have also suggested that Apple’s own self-interest might be the core motivation for this tactic. This is because Apple’s iBeacon technology can be promoted as an opt-in replacement service for MAC address tracking. It’s a valid point, but an opt-in service is surely more desirable than covert location tracking and the tech community seems to agree.

Patrick Parodi founder of the Wireless Registry praised Apple when talking to the Washington Post, saying “It’s great to see Apple help people take control… This is continuing to become a big issue – the idea of physical detection of devices, be it your car or smartphone.”

Apple is clearly trying to target the security conscious, in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations it’s a wise business move.

DuckDuckGoIn the past few weeks it has also emerged that Apple has aligned itself with DuckDuckGo; the secure search engine will be part of Safari in the upcoming iOS.

As with many tech developments, it seems that a logical marketing tactic is behind many decisions.

In his original tweet Frederic Jacobs mentioned that he hoped that randomized MAC addresses would become industry standard. This will more than likely become the case and is down to Apple’s initiative.

If you want to currently avoid being tracked via your MAC address, there is a rather rudimentary solution; turn off your Wi-Fi when you don’t need it.

Joe Trimby is part of the team at IVPN. A virtual private network comprised of security experts. He aims to keep abreast of the latest tech security developments and is a champion of civil liberties in the digital world.

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