iOS changes will address HIPAA risk

In the meantime, MAC address broadcasts are still a threat to privacy
By Evan Schuman
10:13 AM
Smartphone showing a lock on the screen in front of a "cloud"

Imagine if almost everyone walking into your hospital – patients, doctors, visitors, salespeople – was carrying an active homing beacon, which broadcast, unencrypted, their presence and repeatedly updated exact location to anyone who chose to listen.

[See also: Where will HIT security be in 3 years?]

That's where things stand today, courtesy of the mobile MAC address signal (it stands for media access control), a unique ID coming from every smartphone, tablet and wearable device.

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But not for long, given upcoming changes to how Apple products will handle MAC address broadcasts –  a move almost certain to be copied by Google's Android.

[See also: 'Troubling disconnect' between mobile security threats and protections in place]

Apple's iOS 8 change, focusing initially on how MAC addressing interacts with Wi-Fi scans, will shift to using "randomly, locally administered" MAC addresses. The result, according to Apple: "The MAC address used for Wi-Fi scans may not always be the device's real – universal – address." (That description is on page 18 of an Apple PDF, available here.)

As a practical matter, using this kind of a randomized bogus address approach will make tracking people via mobile devices impossible or, at best, impractical, depending on the level of randomization used and how often – if ever – the true MAC address is broadcast.

It will still be months before Apple releases this new version of its mobile OS publicly (it's now solely with developers), weeks and maybe months before most consumers will upgrade and longer still before others – especially Google's Android – mimic the move.

That means that, for now, this security privacy risk is still a very real threat.

The risk is twofold. First, there is the potential for a renegade member of the hospital's staff to track people. Second, there exists the possibility that hospital visitors could wirelessly track other hospital visitors.

With the first scenario, this is not as much of a concern for tracking doctors and other hospital staff, as they could just as easily be tracked the instant they log into the hospital's local area network, so the MAC address broadcast is not necessary. With visiting cyberthieves or stalkers, anyone with a mobile device is a potentially tracked victim.

The security risk is that a specific MAC address would be tracked over time, showing all travel activity within the hospital. Retail offers a great example of the risk: Retailers work with vendors who have contracts with lots of other retailers. This allows those companies to create – and to then sell – detailed reports of every store and mall and parking lot that a MAC address visits. By overlaying it with purchase records, that address can be associated with specific purchases. If those purchases used a payment card or loyalty card, that MAC address can then be associated with a specific person.

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