Ever since Apple re-branded as the “Privacy” company several years back, it’s been rolling out features designed to show its commitment to protecting users. Yet while customers might feel safer using an iPhone, there’s already plenty of evidence that Apple’s branding efforts don’t always match the reality of its products. In fact, a lot of its privacy features don’t actually seem to work.
Case in point: new research shows that one of Apple’s proffered privacy tools—a feature that was supposed to anonymize mobile users’ connections to Wifi—is effectively “useless.” In 2020, Apple debuted a feature that, when switched on, was supposed to hide an iPhone user’s media access control—or MAC—address. When a device connects to a WiFi network, it must first send out its MAC address so the network can identify it; when the same MAC address pops up in network after network, it can be used to by network observers to identify and track a specific mobile user’s movements.
Apple’s feature was supposed to provide randomized MAC addresses for users as a way of stop this kind of tracking from happening. But, apparently, a bug in the feature persisted for years that made the feature effectively useless.
According to a new report from Ars Technica, researchers recently tested the feature to see if it actually concealed their MAC addresses, only to find that it didn’t do that at all. Ars writes:
Despite promises that this never-changing address would be hidden and replaced with a private one that was unique to each SSID, Apple devices have continued to display the real one, which in turn got broadcast to every other connected device on the network.
One of the researchers behind the discovery of the vulnerability, Tommy Mysk, told Ars that, from the jump, “this feature was useless because of this bug,” and that, try as they might, he “couldn’t stop the devices from sending these discovery requests, even with a VPN. Even in the Lockdown Mode.”
What Apple’s justification for advertising a feature that just plainly does not work is, I’m not sure. Gizmodo reached out to the company for comment and will update this story if they respond. A recent update, iOS 17.1, apparently patches the problem and ensures that the feature actually works.
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