WASHINGTON — As the political push to curb digital spying remains mired in debate, those who produce the technological wonders of our age are fixing on a more direct response: If you can’t legislate privacy, build it in.
It is against this backdrop that many in the technological community are applauding the decision by Apple to tweak how the iPhone searches for WiFi connections. Through a relatively simple software update, the company plans to undermine a widely deployed system that stores such as Nordstrom have used to track the movements of customers to analyze shopping habits.
Tracking shoppers is not the same as tracking terrorism suspects, but software developers increasingly appreciate that all digital surveillance relies on access to data created whenever humans and computers interact. That has prompted a widespread rethinking of how computer systems are designed, with the goal of making data much harder for outsiders to vacuum up, be they intelligence services or the local mall.
In the aftermath of Edward Snowden’s revelations about government surveillance, efforts began to extend encryption, repair long-standing security flaws in software and limit the amount of information that apps and Web sites “leak” – meaning inadvertently expose to unauthorized collection. Other developers began looking to build entirely new communications systems that are decentralized, making them inherently resistant to mass surveillance.
“The solutions here are going to be technical,” said Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist for the American Civil Liberties Union. “The biggest and most enduring impact of Snowden is going to be the way the engineering community adjusts.”
Apple, which declined to comment on its new WiFi system, plans to have iPhones and iPads send out random identification codes when they look for WiFi signals, according to information sent to app developers.
Once this change takes effect, probably in September, it will defeat systems that rely on a single, distinctive WiFi code to track shoppers by their iPhones, monitoring where they move in a store and when they return. The goal typically is to deliver coupons and collect data on shopping behavior. Other smartphones, including those using the popular Android operating system, will still be trackable through their WiFi signals.
Nordstrom once used such a system but stopped after public outcry. Euclid, one of several analytics companies that provides such services, does not name its customers but claims they include major retailers selling clothing, auto parts and housewares.
Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., who has proposed legislation banning such tracking except when customers explicitly choose to participate, said in a statement, “Companies are tracking your movements when you go shopping without your knowledge – and often when you don’t even enter a store. Apple’s decision to protect their users against this form of tracking is a smart and powerful move for privacy.”
Apple does have its own system for delivering location-based advertising to customers, called iBeacon, but it requires that users opt in by opening a store’s app on their smartphones. Services based on WiFi codes, by contrast, can operate without consent or the knowledge of customers, even when they are not using their phones. There are other technologies capable of tracking customers as well, though perhaps none is as simple and inexpensive for stores to use, experts say.