MAC address scrambling coming to Linux

Apple’s iOS had it since version 8. Windows 10 has it.

And pretty soon, many Linux users will be able to get it, too.

It’s the ability to scramble the hardware media access control (MAC) address that each mobile device uses when setting up Wi-Fi connections.

Those MAC addresses allow mobile users to be tracked by all sorts of busybodies (and curious researchers!), be they spies, crooks, advertisers, retailers, trash bins rigged to track passersby, cops tracking stolen devices, Sophos researchers warbiking through London, felines warprowling (with bonus mouse catching!), or Sexy Cyborg out warstrolling (with high heels packing Wi-Fi hacking tools, no less!).

This past July, an IEEE study group recommended that the Wi-Fi protocol needs to be updated to use randomly generated MAC addresses for better security and privacy.

Juan Carlos Zuniga, principal engineer at InterDigital and chair of the IEEE 802 Privacy Executive Committee Study Group:

Because of the uniqueness of the identifier and the fact that they’re not encrypted, you can easily make a connection between the identifier and the user.

And it looks like the IEEE-recommended randomization of MAC addresses is going to come to the Fedora distribution of Linux.

Fedora contributor and NetworkManager developer Lubomir Rintel writes on his blog that the problem is that our laptops and mobile phones’ MAC addresses are, in most cases, broadcasting wherever we go, before we even attempt a connection to a wireless network.

That’s a problem for our privacy, he writes:

Even when you’re super careful about encrypting your internet traffic, the meta-data can leak enough information to make you worried.

Rintel suggests that one method of protecting your privacy while on the go and remaining anonymous at all times is to randomize devices’ MAC addresses while they scan for Wi-Fi networks.

Apple began to use the method starting in iOS 8, and Microsoft incorporated it in Windows 10.

If everything works out right, Linux users who have the NetworkManager software will get MAC randomization too, in the upcoming NetworkManager 1.2 release.

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