logo BrailleNet

10th European e-Accessibility Forum
e-Accessibility in a connected world

30 May 2016, 9am-6pm
Cité des sciences et de l'industrie, Paris

  Version française
Printable version

Pocket informers: Privacy problems with portable communication objects

Mathieu CUNCHE (Lyon)

Speaker's information

photo Mathieu Cunche

Mathieu Cunche is an Associate Professor for undergraduate programmes at INSA-Lyon. He is a member of the CITI laboratory and the INRIA Privatics project team. He holds a PhD in Computer Science from the University of Grenoble and an engineering degree from ENSIMAG. His research focuses on issues around privacy protection and security related to new information and communications technology. He is particularly interested in the implications of the use of radio technologies in mobile devices on privacy. Anonymous communication systems and issues around Internet censorship are also central interests.



One of the most important technologies used to connect objects today is WiFi technology. Smartphones, along with an increasing network of objects, can connect and log on to the WiFi network via radio waves.

Each data emitter and receiver has a unique numerical identifier known as a MAC address. When a device is on, it passively detects emissions from WiFi beacons and actively triggers these beacons with probe requests. The result is that we all have devices in our pockets, whether connected or not, that send out requests several times per minute to the nearest WiFi access points. This information is available to anyone who has the technical capacity to capture it and may be used to various ends, posing a serious threat to personal privacy. Furthermore, some devices may communicate the history of connections made by a given MAC address, i.e. places visited and details on social media connections.

This provides a powerful tool to track and monitor people. Often this information is not used to follow individuals, but rather to identify trends and behaviour among groups of people. For example, WiFi tracking is used to monitor and keep tabs on road congestion. Shopping centres also carry out physical analytics of WiFi data to identify the number and nature of shoppers visiting individual stores.

Tracking can also be used to detect the travelling habits and purchasing habits of individual people and to display targeted advertising according to profile.

This practice is being closely watched by France’s data privacy agency. There are legal tools to protect the public against certain kinds of tracking and several solutions – none of them fool proof – are available to limit the traceability of our devices.

Another system used to link devices to objects is Bluetooth. This is a wireless communication system which can connect objects over short distances. Again, the MAC address is used as a radio identifier and can expose users to privacy issues. However, the advantage with Bluetooth over WiFi is that there is an invisibility mode which is activated by default for all devices from version 4.0 onwards. If the visible mode is not activated, the device will not disclose its MAC address. These devices also use random identifiers that change to prevent tracking, even when the device is connected.

WiFi was designed in the late 1990s. Privacy issues were not given sufficient consideration as at the time it was not foreseen that the entire population would carry a WiFi device in their pockets. Industry and standards bodies are now working to attempt to resolve these issues and to ensure that any new systems that come into existence are secure from the outset.

Watch Mathieu Cunche's presentation on YouTube (in French). For subtitles, please use the CC button, and if you require a transcript do not hesitate to contact us at contact[at]braillenet.org.


Retour à la liste des articles
Help - Site map - Contact