New iOS 8 feature protects users from location-based WiFi tracking

More features likely to appear in iOS 8 when it ships are continuing to surface. Another interesting change in Apple’s popular mobile OS not mentioned on stage at last week’s WWDC keynote is the way iOS 8 will handle MAC addresses and user privacy over WiFi.

A MAC address is used by iPhones and other iOS devices for identification within a WIFI network, but iOS 8 will now be randomizing that address while the device is looking for a connection. This means that, unlike before, iOS 8 devices will be essentially anonymous until connected.

This sounds like a major win for user privacy, but there is an entire industry built on tracking devices that isn’t going to be too happy about this. Many major retail chains employ services that track MAC addresses in order to collate data on people coming in and out of their store. As we previously reported, major retail outlets like Nordstrom and JC Penney have both used systems of this nature as well as camera surveillance tracking in order to gather a complete record of the customer’s activity throughout a particular brick and mortar location.

As many as one in three smartphones in the US run iOS, which will potentially render the tracking data much less valuable for retailers. Whether this a play by Apple to push iBeacon technology to the forefront or simply to provide better privacy for its users is unclear, but location tracking companies will soon have to find some kind of work around to see through Apple’s MAC scrambling.