News Column

Apple to tweak wi-fi security

June 14, 2014

WASHINGTON: As the political push to curb digital spying remains mired in debate, those who produce the technological wonders of our age are fixing on a more direct response: if you can't legislate privacy, build it in.

It is against this backdrop that many in the technological community are applauding the decision by Apple to tweak how the iPhone searches for wi-fi connections.

Through a simple software update, the company plans to undermine a widely deployed system that stores such as Nordstrom have used to track the movements of customers to analyse shopping habits.

Tracking shoppers is not the same as tracking terrorism suspects, but software developers increasingly appreciate that all digital surveillance relies on access to data created whenever humans and computers interact.

That has prompted a widespread rethinking of how computer systems are designed, with the goal of making data much harder for outsiders to vacuum up.

In the aftermath of Edward Snowden's revelations about government surveillance, efforts began to extend encryption, repair long-standing security flaws in software and limit the amount of information that apps and websites "leak".

Other developers began looking to build entirely new communications systems that are decentralised, making them inherently resistant to mass surveillance.

"The solutions here are going to be technical," said Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist for the American Civil Liberties Union. "The biggest and most enduring impact of Snowden is going to be the way the engineering community adjusts."

Apple plans to have iPhones and iPads send out random identification codes when they look for wi-fi signals, according to information sent to app developers.

Once this change takes effect, probably in September, it will defeat systems that rely on a single, distinctive wi-fi code to track |shoppers by their iPhones, monitoring where they move in a shop and when they return.

Other smartphones will still |be trackable through their wi-fi |signals.

Nordstrom once used such a system but stopped after public outcry. Euclid, one of several analytics companies that provides such services, does not name its customers but claims they include major retailers selling clothing, auto parts and housewares.

Senator Al Franken, who has proposed legislation banning such tracking except when customers explicitly choose to participate, said in a statement: "Companies are tracking your movements when you go shopping without your knowledge - and often when you don't even enter a store. Apple's decision to protect their users against this form of tracking is a smart and powerful move for privacy."

Apple does have its own system for delivering location-based advertising to customers, called iBeacon, but it requires that users opt in by opening a store's app on their smartphones.

Services based on wi-fi codes, by contrast, can operate without consent or the knowledge of customers, even when they are not using their phones.

Privacy groups have been pushing for changes to wi-fi technology to make location tracking more difficult. They are also pushing for end-to-end encryption of e-mail, social media postings and video chat, and for tech companies and judges to treat surveillance requests from investigators more sceptically. - The Washington Post

Weekend Argus

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Source: Weekend Argus (South Africa)

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