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If we are accessing a public wifi network, does changing mac address at certain intervals of time keep us anonymous forever? Is there anything other than mac address to identify a user in an AP?

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4 Answers 4

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Partly, yes...but mostly no - there are many other things that can identify you.

The Media Access Control address is used on the local network segment only. Yes, it is (supposed) to be unique to each network interface device, and sometimes can be changed/spoofed.

So to a slight extent, regularly changing your MAC address will provide you with some degree of anonymity against basic analysis on the WiFi network you're connecting to - they won't see the same MAC address twice in their WiFi controller logs. More advanced techniques (e.g. Packet inspection) will still be effective against you - see #1 and #2 below.

However, there is more to anonymity than just your MAC address. You may also want to be anonymous to the machines on the internet you're connecting to, or to any observers/agencies performing bulk surveillance:

  1. HTTP connections are visible to the local network and internet. You might accidentally reveal identifying information by accident. For example, you might login to a poorly designed website that sends the username in cleartext. You might transmit a long-lived advertising cookie that was previously observed.

  2. Your web browser might act in a unique way, or your machine might transmit a unique series of packets that allows your computer or browser to be identified. This is known as browser fingerprinting, or device fingerprinting.

  3. You might physically visit the same WiFi location multiple times in an observable pattern. Even if no one sees you, the security cameras will. It would not matter how well you spoof your MAC address if there are other ways of tying you to the traffic.

To remain anonymous in the broad sense of the term, you need to consider every aspect of your actions. The WiFi network you connect to is only a small portion of what you need to consider.

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1  
Google cookies and the unique identifier used by e. g. Firefox to download the list of malicious sites in segments are further identifiers. –  Hendrik Brummermann Dec 20 '13 at 8:55

Protecting your MAC address is completely ineffective and should be the least of your concerns.

Actually, constantly changing your MAC address will draw even more attention, since the network administrators will see a large amount of MAC addresses associated with an access point and will investigate further.

Staying truly anonymous is hard, tedious, time-consuming, annoying and ineffective in your day-to-day operations, whatever they may be. Anonymity cannot be achieved by relying solely on technology. It requires discipline, mindfulness and attention to detail.

That being said, you should first consider the following questions:

  • Who do you want to protect your identity from?
  • Based on the consequences of a compromise, does it worth the time and effort?

Below are only few of the things you might want keep in mind:

  • Modern operating systems are very "noisy" and have a wide range of networked services that can leak all sorts of interesting information about a user, when they announce themselves or interacting with another host on the local network segment. Depending on your operating system and configuration, your first step would be to pin-point those services and disable them.

  • A good practice is to avoid using any information that can personally identify you in your system's configuration. For example, do not use for usernames or hostnames your real name, home address, work address, phone or nicknames that can be easily tied to your real identify.

  • Tunnel your network traffic through a VPN connection. The VPN end-point should not be tied to your real identity. For example, do not connect to a VPN server that you run from your home on the public IP address that your ISP has assigned to you.

  • Do not access services and sites from the aforementioned public network that are somehow connected to your real identity or have been accessed in the past from locations that can be tied to your real identity.

  • The hardware and software configuration of your system may be uniquely identified among the users of a public area network. Avoid using that system on this network if you have used it again in the past while not attempting to protect your identity.

  • The longer you work on a hostile public network, the more chances you are offering to your adversary to compromise you.

  • Try to blend in and do not give any visual clues that may lead people to associate you with stereotypes. For example, do not wear t-shirts with stamps from technical conferences or use stickers on your laptop if you want to conceal your technical competence. It's easier to remember "that guy with the DefCon t-shift and the massive amounts of infosec stickers on his laptop".

  • Keep your mouth shut.

The list goes on. You might want to read the grugq's Hacker OPSEC blog and watch his presentation on the topic, since it offers valuable advises on preserving your anonymity.

Here is an example of what not to do, and a demonstration of how easy it is to compromise the anonymity of careless users.

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Your MAC would only be used to identify you on that local network. Generally, if you change your MAC you would probably need to reauthenticate with the access point (usually just agreeing to their TOS) which would lead to other information such as your browser version, cookies from previous authentications, installed plugins and their versions, etc... being exposed to the AP again. If the AP doesn't require user level authentication (i.e. if it just uses a PSK), changing your MAC could provide additional anonymity but networks like that are generally pretty small and it wouldn't take much for someone to find a pattern through DNS lookups and other activity to determine your identity in that environment if they wanted to find you.

As far as how you're identified by the AP - if the AP is also a router, your IP address will be an identifier. If it is just providing switching, it's only concerned about your MAC address. If it has software/user level authentication, it will probably be using your MAC and/or your IP address and, cookies to identify you.

That being said, changing your MAC would probably be a rather cumbersome way to achieve rather modest results in terms of anonymity. The best method to conceal your activity on a public network is using a VPN. All you would see from the access point is the DNS request (if your not connection directly via an IP address), the address of your endpoint, and then just encrypted traffic between your machine and the endpoint.

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Also consider that the name of your device when connected will probably be given to the wireless router. So if your iPhone is called John's iPhone that name will show up on the network.

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