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Apple is getting taken to task for a couple of security issues.

First, their recently announced “Random MAC address” feature does not appear to be as effective as expected. The idea is that the iOS 8 device will use randomly generated MAC addresses to ping WiFi base stations when it is not actively connected to a WiFi network. This allows your phone to identify known networks and to use WiFi for enhanced location information without revealing your identity or allowing you to be tracked. Unfortunately the MAC only changes when the phone is sleeping, which is really rare with all the push notifications happening all the time. The effect is that the “random” MAC addresses are changed relatively infrequently. The feature is still good, but needs some work to be actually very useful.

Second, people are noticing their passwords showing up in Apples iOS 8 predictive keyboard. The keyboard is designed to recognize phrases you type frequently so it can propose them to you as you type, thus speeding message entry. The problem is that passwords often follow user names, and may be typed frequently. Research is suggesting that the problem is from websites that fail to mark their password fields. Apple is smart enough to ignore text in known password fields, but if it does not know that it is a password, then the learning happens. It is not clear that this is Apple’s fault, but it is still a problem for users. Auto-fill using the latest version of 1Password should protect against this.

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Lance Cottrell is the Founder and Chief Scientist of Anonymizer. Follow me onFacebookTwitter, and Google+.

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Standard-Profile-Picture.jpgIn episode 21 of our podcast for July, I talk about:

  • A decision giving Canadians more rights to Anonymity
  • Iraq’s recent blocking of social media and more
  • Iran’s outright criminalization of social media
  • A court decision requiring warrants to access cell tower location data
  • Another court stating that irrelevant seized data needs to be deleted after searches
  • A massive failure of data anonymization in New York City
  • A court requiring a defendant to decrypt his files so they can be searched
  • The Supreme Court ruling protecting cellphones from warrantless search.
  • Phone tracking streetlights in Chicago
  • And a small change for iPhones bringing big privacy benefits

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IOS8 MAC Randomization

News just broke of a new feature in iOS 8 announced at Apple’s WWDC which was not covered in the big keynote. Advertisers and retail outlets have been using Wi-Fi to track mobile devices for some time. I talked about a network of Wi-Fi tracking trashcans last year in the podcast.

This works because, by default, most mobile devices are constantly on the lookout for Wi-Fi networks. The device communicates with visible base stations to see if they are known, if they are secure, and what they are called. That communication reveals the MAC address of the device’s Wi-Fi.

Like the address on your house, your phone number, or IP addresses, MAC addresses are globally unique identifiers. Everything that can speak Wi-Fi has its own individual MAC address. This makes it a great hook for tracking. If someone sets up a bunch of Wi-Fi base stations, most mobile devices going by will try to connect, giving it their MAC address. By looking at the pattern of those connections, the device can be tracked. 

More sophisticated solutions have even used signal strength to triangulate the location of devices within a small area.

The big news is that Apple is going to randomize the MAC addresses of iOS 8 devices when they are probing for networks. If the device were to probe network base stations A, B, and C they would all see different MAC addresses and think that they were tracking different devices. The iPhone or iPad would still use its real MAC when establishing a full connection, but would not provide it to all of the networks it only probes but never actually uses.

This is a really small change which provides significant privacy gains. It is similar to the decision Apple made to use randomized IPv6 addresses by default, rather than ones which uniquely identify the computer or mobile device.

Of course, Apple is also working hard to track us all with iBeacons at the same time….

Lance Cottrell is the Founder and Chief Scientist of Anonymizer. Follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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