Your Position Tracked by Your Cellphone's MAC Address

Seattle’s public WiFi has a new feature that allows for the tracking of both connected and non-connected WiFi devices.  The system made by Aruba Networks and operated by the Seattle Police Department was part of a $2.7 million dollar Department of Homeland Security grant.  The systems look like this:

Antenna antenna2

The system is rather impressive.  It has the ability to track the last 1,000 positions of a Media Access Control (MAC)  address of any device – whether it is connected to the WiFi network or not.  According to the manufacture the devices have the ability to not only provide WiFi access but also assist system administrator in tracking “unassociated” devices in order to improve security.  The implications of  this technology is that the administrators of this network can determine the position of anyone walking around in Seattle with a MAC address… so anyone with a cell phone.

According to Aruba’s documentation the devices run something called Analytics and Location Engine or ALE.  ALE is able to “calculate[s] the location of associated and unassociated WiFi devices.”  ALE is able to do this “even though a device has not associated to the network, information about it is available. This includes the MAC address, location, and RSSI information.”

The system has two settings for tracking:  an anonymous tracking that “allows for unique user tracking without knowing who the individual user is” and a way to track user more invasive for the purpose of developing information on user behavior.

This technology is really nothing new but just an adoption of MAC address access control being used to query all radios in the vicinity of the access point.  When it is put into the context of controlling the WiFi access at a business location this technology makes a lot of sense.  When it is adapted for use in what is considered public space it is understandable that there are questions regarding privacy.

Here is a different viewpoint:  Yes these technologies can be used to spy on anyone.  However, there are many benefits that knowing how many people are in a given area (using the device in anonymous mode).  For instance if there was a earthquake or terror attack knowing how many potential casualties are in a given area let emergency services direct their limited forces better.  Additionally if there is movement of the MAC addresses in most areas but not in another it could suggest that there are more injured people at that location.  Being able to track everyone in a more invasive manner has privacy implications but it also have many safety benefits.  This requires the public to give up a sense of privacy that may actually be quite false.

In the end this will be an interesting social experiment as well as some interesting adaptations of technology.

Post by Protocol 46