iBeacon win - iOS 8 to introduce MAC address randomization

Ben Howden /

If you’re not already aware of this, whenever you have your phone’s Wi-Fi switched on you are broadcasting your location to anyone that’s listening via a unique identifier called a Media Access Control (MAC) address. The MAC address has long been used by marketers and analysts to track people’s movements through stores and shopping malls.

When your device searches for a Wi-Fi network it sends out its MAC address which is picked up by wireless routers, even if a connection isn’t made. When aggregated this data provides powerful in-store analytics such as foot traffic, pathing, frequency and visit duration. Store owners use this data to help optimise the in-store experience.

However, a recent change picked up by a programmer suggests that Apple’s new iOS 8 operating system is set to generate random MAC addresses while scanning for Wi-Fi networks. The changes means existing analytics companies using the MAC address for tracking will no longer know when the same device or person visits a store or venue. Whilst these companies will still be able to provide high level foot traffic data, the loss of a unique identifier will obscure valuable behavioural data and marketing insights.

Is this a boon for iBeacon analytics providers? Absolutely. It leaves Wi-Fi tracking solutions with a very low level of data granularity when compared to iBeacon solutions. Whilst Apple will likely claim it’s a move to protect the privacy of their customers, it’s hard not to see it as a push to support their own iBeacon ecosystem. By randomizing MAC addresses, Apple is quietly pushing companies interested in proximity based marketing and analytics towards its preferred Bluetooth Low Energy technology. So if you’re building a software product around iBeacon like we are, you can consider this latest move by Apple as a big win.