How Your Device Tracks Your Movements, and What You Can Do About It
An exciting new update to the iOS operating system—that’s the one that powers Apple’s portable devices, like iPhones, iPads, and certain iPods—is coming this fall, and for users concerned about their privacy and data security, this update can’t come a minute too soon.
Besides a number of features that are intended to make Apple consumers’ lives even easier and more streamlined, one new change has users hoping that this is only the beginning of the industry standard for internet security. It involves your MAC address and how others can access it.
First of all, MAC in this case isn’t referring to Apple’s line of laptop computers, and is not to be confused with products you may have heard of like the Mac Book. Here, MAC refers to your device’s Media Access Control address. This address is unique to every device like a tablet or phone, and allowing your phone or device to search for wifi connections in public is actually a pretty solid method of tracking your movements.
Your phone, with the wifi enabled, is tucked safely in your purse or pocket while you’re out on the town. As you approach any location that has wifi, even if it’s not public wifi (such as an office building or store that has an internet connection so it can do business), your device is working away, doing what it does best, which is to keep you connected. Your device doesn’t know that you’re just shopping with your kids and having lunch, it’s prepared at all times for you to pick it up, swipe your finger, and try to browse the internet or check your email.
Your MAC address just registered with all of those wifi connections that you literally walked past.
Before anyone sounds the alarm, this isn’t used as a personal identifier or tracking system…yet. While recent events in the news have shown that the NSA is allowed to access certain pieces of information that we may not have been aware of, there’s no reason to feel like you’re wearing a National Geographic bear tracking collar just because you have your cell phone with you.
However, marketing firms are accessing that information all the time. This could explain why you and your daughter-in-law spent the day shopping for the perfect baby crib and car seat, then you had ads for maternity shops pop up in your email or social media streams. Your MAC address alerted various companies who track consumer behavior that you’ve been hanging out in stork-themed baby stores.
iOS 8, due out this fall, is going to change that. Instead of a unique MAC address, Apple devices with that downloaded the updated operating system will generate random MAC addresses instead of relying on a unique identifier. Industry watchers and privacy advocates alike are thrilled about the news, and are hopeful that it will become an industry standard.
Until iOS 8 becomes available or if you don’t own an Apple device, you can simply turn off the wifi on your phone or tablet when you’re out in public. It’s simple to turn it back on if you needed it to search for something or check your email, but disabling the wifi will keep your address from being tracked by any entity that wants the information on where you’ve been. If you do need to connect to wifi in public, though, remember that the agreement for using a store or company’s wifi is an acknowledgment that you’re giving them the right to track you, your device, and any activity you conduct online while you’re connected.
If you found this information helpful, you may want to consider taking part in the Identity Theft Resource Center's Anyone3 fundraising campaign. For more information or to donate please visit http://www.idtheftcenter.org/anyone-3.