this post was submitted on 23 May 2024
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Apple and the satellite-based broadband service Starlink each recently took steps to address new research into the potential security and privacy implications of how their services geo-locate devices. Researchers from the University of Maryland say they relied on publicly available data from Apple to track the location of billions of devices globally -- including non-Apple devices like Starlink systems -- and found they could use this data to monitor the destruction of Gaza, as well as the movements and in many cases identities of Russian and Ukrainian troops. At issue is the way that Apple collects and publicly shares information about the precise location of all Wi-Fi access points seen by its devices. Apple collects this location data to give Apple devices a crowdsourced, low-power alternative to constantly requesting global positioning system (GPS) coordinates.

Both Apple and Google operate their own Wi-Fi-based Positioning Systems (WPS) that obtain certain hardware identifiers from all wireless access points that come within range of their mobile devices. Both record the Media Access Control (MAC) address that a Wi-FI access point uses, known as a Basic Service Set Identifier or BSSID. Periodically, Apple and Google mobile devices will forward their locations -- by querying GPS and/or by using cellular towers as landmarks -- along with any nearby BSSIDs. This combination of data allows Apple and Google devices to figure out where they are within a few feet or meters, and it's what allows your mobile phone to continue displaying your planned route even when the device can't get a fix on GPS.

With Google's WPS, a wireless device submits a list of nearby Wi-Fi access point BSSIDs and their signal strengths -- via an application programming interface (API) request to Google -- whose WPS responds with the device's computed position. Google's WPS requires at least two BSSIDs to calculate a device's approximate position. Apple's WPS also accepts a list of nearby BSSIDs, but instead of computing the device's location based off the set of observed access points and their received signal strengths and then reporting that result to the user, Apple's API will return the geolocations of up to 400 hundred more BSSIDs that are nearby the one requested. It then uses approximately eight of those BSSIDs to work out the user's location based on known landmarks.

In essence, Google's WPS computes the user's location and shares it with the device. Apple's WPS gives its devices a large enough amount of data about the location of known access points in the area that the devices can do that estimation on their own. That's according to two researchers at the University of Maryland, who theorized they could use the verbosity of Apple's API to map the movement of individual devices into and out of virtually any defined area of the world. The UMD pair said they spent a month early in their research continuously querying the API, asking it for the location of more than a billion BSSIDs generated at random. They learned that while only about three million of those randomly generated BSSIDs were known to Apple's Wi-Fi geolocation API, Apple also returned an additional 488 million BSSID locations already stored in its WPS from other lookups.>Apple and the satellite-based broadband service Starlink each recently took steps to address new research into the potential security and privacy implications of how their services geo-locate devices. Researchers from the University of Maryland say they relied on publicly available data from Apple to track the location of billions of devices globally — including non-Apple devices like Starlink systems — and found they could use this data to monitor the destruction of Gaza, as well as the movements and in many cases identities of Russian and Ukrainian troops.

"Plotting the locations returned by Apple's WPS between November 2022 and November 2023, Levin and Rye saw they had a near global view of the locations tied to more than two billion Wi-Fi access points," the report adds. "The map showed geolocated access points in nearly every corner of the globe, apart from almost the entirety of China, vast stretches of desert wilderness in central Australia and Africa, and deep in the rainforests of South America."

The researchers wrote: "We observe routers move between cities and countries, potentially representing their owner's relocation or a business transaction between an old and new owner. While there is not necessarily a 1-to-1 relationship between Wi-Fi routers and users, home routers typically only have several. If these users are vulnerable populations, such as those fleeing intimate partner violence or a stalker, their router simply being online can disclose their new location."

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[–] [email protected] 3 points 1 month ago (1 children)

I'm going to need some time to process this.

[–] [email protected] 5 points 1 month ago (1 children)

Starlink's fix was to randomize the BSSID. I can do that on my gear running OpenWRT, but I'm not sure if consumer-grade routers/APs have that capability (probably not).

However, randomizing the BSSID might throw a wrench in any setups that are configured to match the SSID to specific BSSIDs.

[–] [email protected] 1 points 1 week ago

I am looking for the feature on Unifi equipment and haven’t found it. I’ve resorted to the ugly _nomap suffix — I was half expecting smartphones to smartly strip it from the UI but sadly they don’t.

[–] [email protected] 2 points 1 month ago

Damn, I thought Google used to do that and changed it like 10 years ago. Did Apple just not notice?