Don’t Feed the Gift Horse an Apple?

Apple iBeaconApple has recently announced that beginning with iOS 8, Apple handheld devices will employ ‘MAC address randomization.’ Sounds fancy. What does that mean and how does it apply to you? Read on, fearless reader!

Brick and mortar retail establishments in general love information on their customers. They love to know how often you shop, what times and days, what part of the year, what part of the store you walk through, how much time you spend in the store, and a plethora of other statistics that will help them sell you more (of what you want – ostensibly).

How might retailers track these types of information? Simple, you tell them. Or, rather, your phone does. Smartphones that have Wi-Fi turned on are constantly looking for networks to connect to (those networks you see in your list of connection options). As part of this process, behind the scenes is that your phone is constantly sending out sending and receiving beacons that include a unique identifier, termed a ‘MAC address’ – don’t bother with what it stands for, its intended function is some deep networking voodoo. So as you roam around, you phone keeps shouting “I’m phone 42, I’m phone 42.” Stores have tools that record this, and, so, track your movements. This is where they dig up all those statistics they like to have.

So, what has Apple done here? Well iOS 8 will now, instead of constantly shouting “I’m phone 42, I’m phone 42, I’m phone 42,” shout “I’m phone 227, I’m phone 867, I’m phone 5309.” This way it can still see networks and offer for you to connect to them, but retailers can’t track your phone as you move. Nifty, eh? A boon for privacy! … Except: iBeacon.

In 2013 Apple release iBeacon, ‘an indoor proximity system,’ for tracking phones, based on Bluetooth. Because iBeacon uses Bluetooth, it is not affected by MAC address randomization. iBeacon enabled hardware can also track user movements down to the centimeter, depending on the type, number and placement of devices. And, let’s not forget, Apple sells these devices. Hmmm. Disable Wi-Fi tracking, then market a new technology for much better tracking based on Bluetooth which requires retailers to purchase Apple iBeacon devices. Even more fun? iBeacon devices can send advertisements directly to your phone. Your phone is now the retailer’s billboard. Sneaky, sneaky.

Some links with a bit more information: