Apple’s new operating system, iOS 8, has made it much harder for marketers to track your cell phone, and thus harder to track you.
While this is undoubtedly a good move for those concerned with protecting their privacy, others have raised concerns that Apple may be doing this to push their own tracking technology, iBeacon.
How Marketers Use Your Phone to Track You
If you have WiFi enabled on your mobile phone, it automatically identifies nearby WiFi networks. Your mobile phone’s MAC address identifies your mobile device to these mobile networks, regardless of whether you connect to them or not.
Marketing firms are able to use your phone’s MAC address to figure out which WiFi networks you passed by, which lets them know which stores you visited and how long you were in them.
In the same way that Internet companies install cookies on your computer to track the websites you visit and then use this information to serve you targeted ads, marketing firms use the WiFi networks you pass by on your mobile phone to serve you ads based on your interests, and to create a profile on you that they can turn around and sell.
And marketers have been aggressive in collecting this data. The New York Times recently published a story about marketing firms whose main business is collecting MAC addresses of shoppers in malls and then selling this information back to stores.
How Apple Protects Your Privacy
Apple is able to go around this tracking by advertisers by randomizing your MAC address on the iOS 8 operating system. By doing this, marketers have no way to track you as you move around from place to place.
There are limits to how your privacy is protected, however. iOS 8 only randomizes your MAC address if you don’t connect to WiFi networks. As soon as you connect to any network, your phone’s real MAC address will be revealed to the network, which means that you can be tracked at that point.
But What About iBeacon?
Some security experts have pointed out that this may just be a savvy marketing ploy by Apple to make marketers move to Apple’s in-house tracking technology, iBeacon
But iBeacon requires you to install and activate an app before marketers can track you. However, if you allow this, this app could share your MAC address with marketers.
The Bottom Line
Apple’s randomization of your MAC address is undoubtedly a good thing, even with its limitations. While this feature is not in the current beta release of iOS, it’s expected that it will be included in the general release, which should happen around September of this year.
Until that time, it’s important to remember that when you have WiFi turned on for your mobile phone, you are more than likely being tracked by stores and third party collection agencies.
And connecting to an open WiFi network without encrypting your data leaves you vulnerable on any kind of device. Remember, if you send personal information over an open network, this information can easily be stolen by a hacker.
To protect your privacy, be sure to turn off WiFi on your phone when you’re not using it, and don’t accept any prompts to remember WiFi networks. And if you want to completely protect your privacy on your mobile device, use a VPN like PRIVATE WiFi so you are anonymous all of the time.