Sunday, June 06, 2010

House numbers vs SSIDs

In "Are SSIDs and mac addresses like house numbers?" Kim Cameron argues against my characterization of SSIDs and mac addresses being like house numbers:

Let’s think about this. Are SSIDs and MAC addresses like house numbers?

Your house number is used - by anyone in the world who wants to find it - to get to your house. Your house was given a number for that purpose. The people who live in the houses like this. They actually run out and buy little house number things, and nail them up on the side of their houses, to advertise clearly what number they are.

So let’s see:

  1. Are SSIDS and MAC addresses used by anyone in the world to get through to your network? No. A DNS name would be used for that. In residential neighborhoods, you employ a SSID for only one reason - to make it easier to get wireless working for members of your family and their visitors. Your intent is for the wireless access point’s MAC address to be used only by your family’s devices, and the MACs of their devices only by the other devices in the house.
  2. Were SSIDS and MAC addressed invented to allow anyone in the world to find the devices in your house? No, nothing like that.
  3. Do people consciously try to advertise their SSIDs and MAC addresses to the world by running to the store, buying them, and nailing them to their metaphorical porches? Nope again. Zero analogy.

So what is similar? Nothing.

That’s because house addresses are what, in Law Four of the Laws of Identity, were called “universal identifiers”, while SSIDs and MAC addresses are what were called “unidirectional identifiers” - meaning that they were intended to be constrained to use in a single context.

Keeping “unidirectional identifiers” private to their context is essential for privacy. And let me be clear: I’m not refering only to the privacy of individuals, but also that of enterprises, governments and organizations. Protecting unidirectional identifiers is essential for building a secure and trustworthy Internet.

This argument confuses house address with house number. A house number is not able to be used as a universal identifier (I presume that there are many houses out there with the number 15, even in the same town, many times even on the same street in the same zip code (where the only difference is the N.W. and S.E. on the end of the street name).

Like SSIDs and mac addresses, the house number is only usable as an identifier once you get to the neighborhood and very often only once you get to the street.

People choose to advertise SSIDs so they themselves and others will have an easy time connecting with their network once they are within range of the AP - as evidenced by Mike's comment on my previous article (and, the reason why I have chosen to configure my SSID as broadcast). Yes, many people don't know enough to make that decision and perhaps sometimes choose to do what others might consider a wrong thing, but a) that's part of my issue with the wireless AP industry and with the privacy folks not using this as a good educational example.

So while people don't need to go to the hardware store to buy the number to put up on their house, they can, and many do, choose the electronic equivalent when they setup their AP.

House numbers are very much unidirectional identifiers used within the context of a given address (street, city, state, country, postal cod) just as SSIDs and MAC addresses are.

I will admit that there are some differences with the mac address because of how basic Ethernet networking was designed. The mac address is designed to be unique (though, those in networking know that this isn't always the case and in fact most devices let you override the mac address anytime you want). So this could be claimed to be some form of a universal identifier. However, it's not at all usable outside of the local neighborhood. There is no way for me to talk to a particular mac address unless I am locally on the same network with that device.

I do believe that a more privacy enabled design of networking would have allowed for scenarios where mac addresses were more dynamic and thus reducing the universal-ness and persistence of the mac address itself. However, that's an issue for network design and I don't think that what Google did was a substantial privacy issue for the user.

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1 comment:

John Smith said...

Agreed. The relationship between a MAC address and a physical address is too tenuous to be a valuable marketing database, let alone the one scaremongering example Kim has provided.