MAC Address Randomization

MAC Address Randomization featured image

There are many ways that a mobile device communicates with a wireless network in order to establish a secure connection. One of these is by using a unique identifier, or MAC address, to probe for nearby WiFi networks. In late 2020, Apple’s iOS14 and Android’s OS10 implemented features into their respective software related to how a device shares information. The updated operating systems perform MAC address randomization as a device connects to a public WiFi network. It’s important that WiFi users and network operators understand the important implications that these changes bring.

At GoZone WiFi, our team of Smart WiFi experts has worked closely with our industry partners to understand these implications. As we continue to enhance our WiFi software to better serve users, venues, and network operators, we have optimized our WiFi marketing platform to offer new functionality that supports MAC address randomization. First, let’s dive into MAC randomization and its impact on WiFi networks.

MAC Address Randomization 101

A media access control address (MAC address) is the specific identifier of a mobile device. Think of a MAC address as a social security number, but for a desktop, laptop, or smartphone. The purpose of a MAC address is to allow devices connected to  network to identify one another for communications.. This authentic identifier is commonly used by network owners or operators to control network usage, apply limitations, and block users based on network policies.

MAC address randomization is the practice of generating and sharing a random (or “fake”) device identifier in place of the unique MAC address. The new “fake” identifier is used to communicate with WiFi networks. Up until recently, MAC randomization only took place when devices were searching for WiFi and were not used when connecting to a WiFi network.

Today, MAC randomization is performed by operating systems including Android, iOS and Windows. As of September 2020, MAC randomization is only performed one time per WiFi network. That means once you connect to a network for the first time using this new randomized MAC feature, that network will be able to recognize you as a return guest during subsequent visits. However, Apple has indicated plans to move forward with a model including consistent randomization in the future. This could mean that your device would not be recognized, even on trusted networks.

Impact on Guest WiFi Users

At first glance, MAC randomization seems like a win all around for WiFi users that are looking for another layer of privacy. However, this does create obstacles for public WiFi users that have grown accustomed to simple and personalized login experiences at physical venues. Additionally, this brings new challenges for venues that have upgraded their WiFi network to work as a powerful marketing and analytics engine.

WiFi guests with MAC address randomization enabled could lose out on an optimized WiFi experience from venues that utilize WiFi marketing. Advanced captive portal pages are able to distinguish between new WiFi guests and return guests based on a device’s MAC unique address. By randomizing the device identifier, return guests may find a frustrating WiFi experience when they are continually forced to manually sign in to WiFi as a new guest at each visit.

While some WiFi users certainly prefer the added anonymity, others prefer to reap the benefits of digitally connecting with trusted physical spaces.

Impact on Brick-and-Mortar Businesses

Consider your favorite online retailer. Does their website remember you when you return? Perhaps suggest newly released products tailored to your preferences? How about save your contact information for easy checkout at your request? Guest WiFi has evolved to provide the same level of personalization and ease within physical spaces.

If OS developers implement a more aggressive version of MAC randomization, it could strip the network of this type of personalized communication and ease of use. Captive portal pages usually allow new WiFi guests to access the network by signing in with social or email sign in. Previous to MAC randomizations, return guests are recognized as such, and offered a simple and personalized WiFi onboarding experience, perhaps including venue loyalty offers.

That coffee shop you work from four days a week? Get used to a repetitive login process that could include agreeing to terms and conditions, providing your email, and viewing advertisements. Say goodbye to loyalty perks as you settle in with your cup of joe.

WiFi users will also be disappointed to learn that MAC address randomization will limit what type of content they can receive while their device’s numerical identifier is being randomized. Venues that have upgraded their WiFi network with a WiFi marketing platform often offer guests engaging content based on their specific WiFi usage. By identifying just how many times a guest connects to a venue’s WiFi network, these businesses can send out specific email campaigns to top guests and reward them for their loyalty.

Impact on WiFi Analytics

Just as venues that utilize WiFi marketing tools are impacted by MAC address randomization, so are venues that leverage guest WiFi for analytics purposes. Venues that utilize a WiFi analytics tool do so with the purpose of being able to track the flow and density of foot traffic that moves around the property. Large public venues like shopping centers, stadiums and theme park use this data to enhance the customer experience by improving walking paths, optimizing vendor or store placement, adding new attractions, and more.

By randomizing a device’s numerical identifier, WiFi analytics tools are unable to collect exact insights on the foot traffic. While this doesn’t directly affect WiFi users in the way guest WiFi does, unfortunately guests are indirectly affected by this when venues are unable to properly aggregate insights and plan for a better experience.

Impact on Premium WiFi Access

MAC address randomization also needs to be considered when implementing unique access levels. Locations such as convention centers, airports, or coworking spaces often offer different levels of WiFi access. (Think free access with a brief time limit, premium access for VIP members or pay-for-WiFi for multi-day use.) By randomizing a device’s unique identifier, guests who usually access WiFi using a voucher or payment plan for a set amount of time could face a frustrating experience.

It is not uncommon for premium WiFi plans to include time sessions that span hours – if not days – especially in a hospitality setting. Previously, guests who paid for a premium WiFi plan were able to access that plan over long periods of time. That is because the network could identify them by their MAC address. If a device using MAC randomization goes idle or leaves the property, that device will no longer be recognized as part of the previously established plan. This creates unique challenges for industries that have relied on unique access levels in order to efficiently onboard multiple types of customers.

Network operators have relied on the MAC address for ease of use and functionality since its inception. While these changes certainly pose new challenges to the industry, there is hope for the mutually beneficial relationship of connecting to trusted WiFi networks.

How Smart WiFi Supports MAC Address Randomization

GoZone has been working diligently to ensure that we can continue to offer a best-in-class user experience with MAC randomization in place. Below, see a few recent upgrades that our team has made to support MAC randomization.

Our recent product update, Randomized MAC Support, includes functionality to detect when a WiFi guest’s device is using MAC address randomization. This functionality enables public WiFi users and venues to make an informed decision of how to connect to WiFi networks. Similar to signing up for a rewards program on your favorite company’s website, these changes will allow users to continue to reap the benefits of connecting digitally with physical venues and local businesses.

A device using MAC randomization can now be directed to a “Randomized MAC Support” page that offers the opportunity to deactivate the feature, so the user can access the guest WiFi experience the way it was intended.

This captive portal page can be customized to walk users through the MAC randomization settings on their device – and even offer education on the pros and cons of doing so. This allows guests the opportunity to receive loyalty rewards, coupons and other personalized content, as well as access premium WiFi plans.

Randomized MAC Support is designed to offer the most flexibility to both users and venues, while creating a transparent, mutually agreed-upon relationship. If you’d like to learn more about how MAC randomization is impacting your WiFi network, please reach out to one of our product experts. We’re here to help.