Underground WiFi Tracking

While not as ominous as it sounds (depending who you ask), Transport For London bosses have given the go ahead on a four week trial to track commuters using WiFi and their mobile phones.

This has brought a surprisingly common practice into the limelight, and the public reaction is mixed at best.

So what is WiFi tracking and how does it work? Well, while you have your WiFi turned on, your device broadcasts a signal out, essentially calling out for wireless access points. This broadcast contains a select range of information, and the key detail used to track your device is it’s MAC address which is unique to your device.

The ones doing the tracking have a selection of devices spread about the location that listen out for your device’s signal. They can then follow you around the location by looking out for where your MAC address shows up in relation to the listening devices.

Mobile companies have made attempts previously to prevent this by randomising the MAC address sent out on requests. However, both Apple and Android’s results have been far from ideal, with is plain and simply not working most of the time.

TFL have already stated that all data collected will be depersonalised, meaning the data will not identify individuals, and they are not collect any browsing data. However people are still worries about what this means.

While there is no way to know exactly what TFL are doing with the data, we can speak from experience dealing with similar setups ourselves. User privacy is a big concern of ours, so if TFL are making the data unidentifiable, like us they will be hashing (an essentially irreversible method) the MAC addresses and other data collected so that any personally identifiable information is unable to be retrieved.

With all of the scares and privacy concerns aside, we should look at the benefits of this trial. Being able to track an individual’s journey through a station or the entire underground might sound like not much use, but when you add that journey information in with everyone else in the stations, you get hugely valuable data on the footfall and flow of people through the underground.

With this information you can identify which tunnels or areas get the most crowded, and at what time. Then you can use this information to help identify what is causing the congestion, and in turn help take steps to reduce it.

At the end of the day we all want a faster, more efficient and pleasant experience when travelling through the underground, right? The information gathered from this kind of tracking could very well help us get this.

And if you’re still worried about WiFi tracking, avoiding it is as easy as switching your WiFi off. Except there’s also bluetooth tracking which we might go into more in a later post…

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