iOS 8 protects users from advertiser snooping

A new function discovered in iOS 8 could deal a major victory for privacy – and a major blow to marketers.

The update, found on slide 18 of this slide deck (pdf), apparently uses “random, locally administered MAC addresses” when scanning for Wi-Fi, meaning they “may not always be the device’s real (universal) address”.

Marketers use a device’s MAC address, which is broadcast when the phone sends out a “ping” to find nearby Wi-Fi networks, to identify individual devices.

They can then analyse the data to discover what devices, and therefore customers, regularly visit certain shops or locations and serve them targeted advertising.

By obfuscating the device’s MAC address in iOS 8, Apple effectively renders this method of collecting consumer data useless.

Frederic Jacob, a security developer who publicised the feature’s existence via Twitter, said he hopes “this becomes an industry standard”, and many who responded to his original tweet welcomed it as a privacy improvement.

Apple did not say in its presentation what direct benefit, if any, it intends to derive from the system. However, it could be an attempt to drive marketers onto its own Bluetooth-based iBeacon technology, which also serves up location-based advertising via push notifications.

Additionally, Hans-Christian Otto, director of software development with Crosscan, which provides “people counting solutions” to the retail industry, claimed the MAC address is obscured only while the screen is off.

Whether or not that is intentional or a beta bug remains to be seen, but, as devices’ screens will likely be off while they are in people’s bags and pockets anyway, the function will still be active most of the time.

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