Why MAC Address Randomization is not Enough: An Analysis of Wi-Fi Network Discovery Mechanisms

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Célestin Matte
Célestin Matte is a PhD student in the Privatics team working at the Citi Lab in Lyon. His PhD topic is "Privacy-preserving Wifi-tracking systems", which makes him study tracking techniques from a privacy-friendly point of view.
We present several novel techniques to track (unassociated) mobile devices by abusing features of the Wi-Fi standard. This shows that the spreading standard protection of using random MAC addresses, on its own, does not guarantee privacy. First, we show that information elements in probe requests can be used to fingerprint devices. We then combine these fingerprints with incremental sequence numbers, to create a tracking algorithm that does not rely on unique identifiers such as MAC addresses. Based on real-world datasets, we demonstrate that our algorithm can correctly track as much as 50% of devices for at least 20 minutes. We also show that commodity Wi-Fi devices use predictable scrambler seeds. These can be used to improve the performance of our tracking algorithm. Finally, we present two attacks that reveal the real MAC address of a device, even if MAC address randomization is used. In the first one, we create fake hotspots to induce clients to connect using their real MAC address. The second technique relies on the new 802.11u standard, commonly referred to as Hotspot 2.0, where we show that Linux and Windows send Access Network Query Protocol (ANQP) requests using their real MAC address.