Written by: Beth Hamilton, Product & Marketing Manager
There has been a lot of conversation around the iOS14 changes and how they impact the everyday persons Wi-Fi usage. For many, the situation is confusing. In fact, I didn’t even know what a “MAC Address” was until I started with SolutionInc (and I’m a millennial who has always worked in the IT industry my entire career). Here are the repercussions from the iOS14 MAC Randomization feature, or “private address” as it’s being referred to by Apple.
Background: Every Wi-Fi enabled electronic device has a MAC Address; the acronym MAC stands for Media Access Control. A MAC Address is a unique identifier for the device that allows it to connect through a network adapter and ultimately assists you in connecting to the Internet. Many companies use the MAC Address as a means to differentiate between users and devices because it is really the only truly unique identifier when connecting to public Wi-Fi networks.
What Apple is releasing: In iOS14, Apple is releasing functionality to allow users to join a Wi-Fi network with a private address. Apple has said that MAC Addresses may be used for “a kind of user tracking or profiling”, and by privatizing the MAC Address, organizations can no longer do this, thus increasing user privacy. To accomplish this, if you have the feature enabled on your phone, your device will randomly select a MAC Address that it will always use on that network – one that is different from your “actual” MAC Address. Apple originally planned to update the MAC Address multiple times in a given time period, but opted to change to a single MAC Address for each network. It is believed that Apple has made this decision in support of movements like those at Harvard to support consumers increasing desire for privacy (although I have to wonder – is the information also private to Apple, or do they magically store this tracing data somewhere?).
Implications to the everyday user:
- If the feature is off, your phone, data and Wi-Fi usage will remain the same. Don’t forget to follow basic security steps when using public networks.
- If the feature is on, your experience of logging onto a new Wi-Fi network will virtually be the same. An account will be created for you using your randomized MAC Address which will allow you to authenticate onto the network based on whatever authentication rules the network has in place. The key thing to note here is: if you turn off the “private address” feature while you’re connected to the network, you may have to re-authenticate. Pay particular attention to this if you’ve paid for your service because it will likely charge you again.
How businesses may be impacted:
- Cisco has indicated that some of their products may have issues due to this update. Their Identity Services Engine (ISE) and Mobile Device Management (MGM) both employ MAC Address tracking and could break. This may mean that your BYOD (bring your own device) network at your office is impacted and new policies could be issued asking you not to enable this technology while there.
- It’s becoming fairly common practice for retail locations to implement Wi-Fi tracking in their stores and their practices may have to change with this new update. Some locations will track individuals as they cross multiple facilities and this data can no longer be relied upon with changing MAC Addresses because the data will not be accurate.
- Any business that has built their value proposition around tracking Wi-Fi enabled devices and selling advertising space or lists will likely be impacted by these changes. These companies need to be creative and hop on the privacy bus because it appears to be going in the direction of more device privacy.
Businesses have been shaken by these new iOS14 changes which largely appear to benefit users from a privacy perspective. Apple has changed their minds a few times on the scope of these changes but it seems like they’ve struck a balance between user privacy without too many headaches for the industry.