This week Apple made an historic move towards improved privacy for users of its mobile devices. The problem is that few know they did it and even fewer understand what it is they did.
We’ve all heard by now of the concerns on government spying and our mobile carrier’s ability to track out whereabouts by triangulating our cell phone signals. However, very few people know about the simple way our mobile devices betray our trust every day.
You see, every device on a network has a unique “name” called a Media Access Control address also known as a MAC address. Your phone, tablet and any other device with Wi-Fi enabled has one and isn’t shy about it. While you may not be aware of it these devices are always shouting out “Hey all you access points, I’m looking to connect! My name is <MAC address>.” This is how your devices automatically connect to known wireless networks.
Like many convenient features in computing, this one has been used by some organizations to track people’s devices with neither their knowledge nor their permission. (Click here for a great article on the situation and some legal action taking place in San Francisco). What is happening is there are now companies writing software that when your device beacons out “I’m here and my name is <MAC Address>” the software will record your visit and look for patterns of consumer behavior. While they claim not to make any effort to identify the owner they do record the device’s visits.
Apple, with very little fanfare or press releases has added a new feature to iOS 8 that will send out randomized MAC addresses when the Apple device beacons essentially defeating any software that is tracking the device via the MAC address. What that means is that the tracking software used to data mine your visits and movements will be flooded with random MAC addresses!
For more information on your Online Privacy visit the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s website at www.eff.org.
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This week a claim was made that the sixty-five year old Turing test was finally passed. If this proves true, it will be one of the greatest computing milestones of the decade. While the achievement is being debated this is a good time to revisit the author of the test and his remarkable life and tragic death.
If you were to make a list of computer scientists who have most changed the World, Alan Turing’s name would follow closely behind Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. While Gates and Jobs are household names, Turing’s contributions to defeating the Nazi’s, the field of cryptography and being considered by most as the father of modern computing go largely unknown outside of geek academia. Perhaps even more tragic is the lack of public knowledge surrounding the circumstances of his suicide.
During WWII the Nazi’s had developed ciphers that prevented the Allies from reading their intercepted communications. Being able to communicate without the enemy being able to understand gives an opponent a great advantage. Turing and his team devised a number of techniques for breaking these ciphers aiding the war effort.
After the war he went on to study physics where he is generally considered the “Father of Modern Computing.” One of his many influences during this time was creating the Turning Test- a test that essentially is passed if a computer can convince human interviewers that it too is a human.
In spite of his amazing contributions, his accomplishments were overshadowed during his lifetime by the fact that he was gay. In 1952 he was convicted of the crime of “homosexuality.” To avoid going to prison Turing accepted being injected with high levels of estrogen as a method of chemical castration. This all proved to be too much for him and a few weeks before his 42nd birthday Alan Turing took his own life by ingesting cyanide.
The suicide rate for LGBT teens in our Country is four times higher than that of their straight cohorts. This is in large part attributed to the bullying they experience for being gay. Of the roughly 1,500 gay teens who commit suicide each year, how many Turings has the world lost? What great discoveries has the world been robbed of by their untimely deaths?
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11/13/2014 Update: The Association for Computing Machinery reported today that the prize money for building a machine that can pass the Turing Test has now quadrupled to $1,000,000 thanks to an infusion of cash from Google.