Security

Privacy Implications of Tracking Wireless Access Points

Privacy Implications of Tracking Wireless Access Points

Brian Krebs reports on research into geolocating routers:

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 geolocate 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.

Really fascinating implications to this research.

Research paper: “Surveilling the Masses with Wi-Fi-Based Positioning Systems:

Abstract: Wi-Fi-based Positioning Systems (WPSes) are used by modern mobile devices to learn their position using nearby Wi-Fi access points as landmarks. In this work, we show that Apple’s WPS can be abused to create a privacy threat on a global scale. We present an attack that allows an unprivileged attacker to amass a worldwide snapshot of Wi-Fi BSSID geolocations in only a matter of days. Our attack makes few assumptions, merely exploiting the fact that there are relatively few dense regions of allocated MAC address space. Applying this technique over the course of a year, we learned the precise
locations of over 2 billion BSSIDs around the world.

The privacy implications of such massive datasets become more stark when taken longitudinally, allowing the attacker to track devices’ movements. While most Wi-Fi access points do not move for long periods of time, many devices—like compact travel routers—are specifically designed to be mobile.

We present several case studies that demonstrate the types of attacks on privacy that Apple’s WPS enables: We track devices moving in and out of war zones (specifically Ukraine and Gaza), the effects of natural disasters (specifically the fires in Maui), and the possibility of targeted individual tracking by proxy—all by remotely geolocating wireless access points.

We provide recommendations to WPS operators and Wi-Fi access point manufacturers to enhance the privacy of hundreds of millions of users worldwide. Finally, we detail our efforts at responsibly disclosing this privacy vulnerability, and outline some mitigations that Apple and Wi-Fi access point manufacturers have implemented both independently and as a result of our work.

Posted on May 29, 2024 at 7:01 AM •
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