Apple’s Wi-Fi Positioning Can Be System Abused To Track Users

A new study by researchers at the University of Maryland has uncovered a privacy vulnerability in Apple’s Wi-Fi Positioning System (WPS) that allows attackers to track users’ locations and movements globally.

The findings raise serious concerns about the potential for mass surveillance and the privacy of millions of Wi-Fi access point owners worldwide.

Exploiting Apple’s WPS for Mass Surveillance

The researchers discovered that an unprivileged attacker without prior knowledge could abuse Apple’s WPS to amass a worldwide database of Wi-Fi access point locations in a few days.

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By exploiting the relatively few dense regions of allocated MAC address space, the attacker can efficiently guess BSSIDs to query the WPS API.

Over a year, the researchers collected the precise locations of over 2 billion Wi-Fi access points worldwide.

Apple’s Wi-Fi Positioning Can Be System Abused To Track Users

This enables tracking devices’ movements by remotely geolocating the wireless access points they connect to over time.

While most access points remain stationary, many devices like travel routers are designed to be mobile, allowing an attacker to infer the owner’s location.

To highlight the real-world implications, the researchers present several case studies:

  • Tracking devices moving in and out of war zones in Ukraine and Gaza
  • Monitoring the effects of natural disasters like the fires in Maui
  • Demonstrating the possibility of targeted individual tracking

These case studies underscore how Apple’s WPS can be exploited for open-source intelligence gathering and surveillance of sensitive populations and events.

Merely being within the Wi-Fi range of an Apple device can lead to one’s access point location and movements being exposed without consent.

The researchers provide recommendations for WPS operators and Wi-Fi access point manufacturers to enhance privacy protections:

  • Implementing rate limiting and authentication for WPS queries
  • Randomizing BSSIDs when access points are rebooted or moved
  • Allowing users to opt out of inclusion in WPS databases

The findings were responsibly disclosed to Apple and major access point vendors. In response, Apple has begun allowing access points to opt out by appending “_nomap” to the Wi-Fi network name.

Some vendors, like SpaceX, have started deploying BSSID randomization in their devices.

However, the researchers emphasize that more comprehensive mitigations are needed to fully address this systemic privacy issue and protect the hundreds of millions of Wi-Fi access point owners worldwide from unauthorized tracking enabled by WPSes like Apple’s.

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Author: Divya