Apple enthusiasts have been poring over the feature list for iOS 8, due out this fall, geeking out over the tighter integration among all iOS devices, the improved mail app and myriad other bells and whistles. But perhaps the most important change is a subtle one hidden beneath the covers that will help prevent much of the tracking of mobile devices that’s done through WiFi hotspots.
One of the key methods that retailers and other companies involved in the massive mobile tracking industry is the collection of MAC addresses of the devices that connect to various WiFi hotspots. Users rarely think twice about connecting to the wireless networks in coffee shops, airports, retail stores and other public spaces, even though there are a lot of security and privacy risks associated with that behavior. Attackers often will use public hotspots as targets for man-in-the-middle attacks that let them intercept users’ traffic. Those networks also can be used to collect detailed information about the devices that connect to them, including the unique device identifiers known as MAC addresses.
Those identifiers typically are static, but in Apple iOS 8 the company is introducing a function that will spoof MAC addresses when a device scans for available WiFi networks. Each device will generate random MAC addresses to be used during scanning and connection, a behavior that will go a long way toward hampering the pervasive device tracking that’s performed as a matter of course by so many retailers and other companies. Retailers typically perform mobile device tracking in order to get a picture of customers’ movements in a store and track their behavior.
The randomization of iOS MAC addresses is a privacy win, especially for consumers who may not be aware that their devices broadcast a trackable unique identifier to WiFi hotspots or what that information could be used for by retailers and others involved in the tracking industry. But that’s not the only privacy enhancing change that’s included in iOS 8. Apple also is giving users the option of setting Duck Duck Go as the default search engine in Safari.
Duck Duck Go is considered to be the search engine that does the best job of protecting users’ privacy, as it doesn’t collect or store any personal information. It also doesn’t send search terms to the sites that you visit from results pages and it also automatically redirects users to the encrypted versions of sites when they’re available. That function is similar to the functionality of the HTTPS Everywhere extension for desktop browsers.