For many, the smartphone is an indispensable part of everyday life. Whether it's finding locations, providing weather information, or any of a host of other functions, some out there would just as soon go naked as go without a smartphone. But a new report suggests that the smartphone—as well as several breeds of wearable devices—may be making it easy to track the whereabouts of the user.
The report from Context Information Security noted that it's surprisingly easy to follow Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) signals as generated by many common mobile devices, including various breeds of iPhone (News - Alert) and assorted fitness trackers. As researcher Scott Lester noted, most didn't realize that the device was “broadcasting constantly”, and made such a device easy to track by anyone within roughly a 300-foot radius in open air. This was a point not lost on the Chinese military, which put restrictions on the wearing of devices and the use of smartphones to prevent potential access points of cyber-attack later on.
While the use of BLE as a tracking system does depend on the use of a system's media access control (MAC) address, the MAC address on a mobile device is random. Generally, however, it doesn't change, making it possible to narrow down a field of users to a certain address. Once the MAC address is ascertained, it becomes easier to follow that particular MAC address where ever it might go.
This might not be so much of a problem, but recent reports from the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) have noted that over 90 percent of smartphones with Bluetooth will be Smart Ready devices, or devices that have BLE capability, by 2018. That means a lot of devices will be potentially trackable in fairly short order, and add to that reports that Bluetooth-enabled passenger cars will hit over 50 million by 2016—not to mention the growing use of iBeacon systems in stores—and it's a recipe to leave privacy wonks with a lot of sleepless nights.
There are, admittedly, certain things that can be done should there be concerns about being tracked. Some have espoused the idea of just wrapping such devices in aluminum foil when not in use, though that's proven to be useful only in some cases. But others, meanwhile, suggest that it's not such a big concern to begin with. While it can be part of efforts to “compromise privacy” or potentially even be part of “...a wider social engineering threat”, as in making it easier to figure out when someone's at home or to look for a specific target for a kidnapping-for-ransom effort or the like, the basics of the idea suggest that the problem may be kind of limited in scope.
It's easy to get concerned about something like this due to the sheer idea that “you could be tracked by your smartphone or mobile device.” But that would mean someone had an interest in performing such a trace, and for most of us, that's likely not a concern. There are already said to be some moves to use public key encryption on BLE signals, which will certainly help, and until then, a little basic situational awareness—keeping an eye out for people who might seem to be following a person around—should go a long way toward keeping Bluetooth snoops out of the picture.
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