To address the growing concerns of its users regarding privacy, Apple will begin implementing random MAC addresses upon the release of the iOS 8 mobile operating system.
This will be a huge blow to marketers that uses the phone's MAC address, but will greatly increase the privacy of users that doesn't want these marketers to sniff around for information on their phones.
Open Whisper Systems software engineer Frederic Jacobs tweeted a presentation slide from Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference last week that pertains to the upcoming change.
"Hoping that this becomes an industry standard," Jacobs tweets.
Smartphones and other mobile devices use a unique MAC address to connect to public Wi-Fi spots. So a user that sits down at a coffee shop or walks around in a mall connected to the location's Wi-Fi hotspot is unknowingly broadcasting this MAC address. Companies, therefore, can track the movement of the user through the unique MAC address of their device, seeing the locations that the user visits.
The update by Apple prevents these companies from tracking the user through a connected device because iOS 8 will provide a random address for each round of scanning, therefore being seen as a different device each time.
Companies may not be using the data that they collect from tracking MAC addresses to identify the specific individuals that are carrying the connected devices. They may just be using the data to track where the high-traffic parts of their store are, so that promotional items can be placed there. Another system that tracks MAC address is Houston's TranStar traffic monitoring, which uses the addresses to identify the flow of traffic in the city's streets.
However, there is a legitimate concern for privacy, especially because people are usually unaware that the tracking is happening. Kim Cameron, Microsoft chief architect of access, said in a blog post in 2010 that MAC addresses can lead data gatherers to know the home address of the user, and eventually the true identity of the person holding the device.
Google refutes this claim though, in response to the company getting caught gathering data from Wi-Fi networks when its StreetView cars were doing rounds back in 2011.
"A MAC address tells you nothing about the owner or user of the equipment concerned. It's just a string of characters that's technically necessary for Web pages and other content to be properly delivered to your device over the Internet," said Google on a document regarding Location Service. This statement, however, can no longer be found in an October 2012 version of the same document.
In addition to the MAC randomization, Apple is also introducing DuckDuckGo, which is a search engine that will not track the searches and browsing history of the user. Apple has also opened the iPhone 5s Touch ID authentication system to be used by third-party apps, in a bid to further enhance security for its users.