What's a MAC address and why does it matter?

If you are reading this you  may already know what a I.P address is. A quick recap if you don't .  When a computer connects to the internet or any  network that uses the TCP/IP protocol  it needs a method for uniquely identifying that device on the network. The most common I.P addresses in use today  are version 4 I.P addresses.  These are 32 bit numbers which for historical and administrative reasons are most commonly written as 4 groups of numbers between 0 - 255 separated by a '.'  for example 192.168.19.7 or  136.156.21.98    When a computer has a valid I.P address for that network it can communicate easily with other computers on that network and using the ability of TCP/IP to route communications between multiple networks it has the possibility to communicate with many more.

Before a computer or any other device that connects to the internet can be assigned an I.P address there has to be some communication with the network. This is to make sure the device is both allowed to connect to the network and that the owner of the device is correctly identified.  This Authentication and authorisation process requires the device to have a unique address, but if the I.P address is the unique address on the network does that not create a catch 22 situation?  This is where the MAC address comes in.

The MAC address has no connection to Apple Mac computers.  Its an Acronym for Media Access Control. Every network interface has a MAC address so if you have a computer that has both a wired and wireless network connection that is 2 MAC addresses one each. If you have bluetooth on your computer or phone that also has a MAC address.

Why does it matter what a MAC address is? today in parliament the M.Ps have been debating  the DRIP bill, this is the bill that will allow the state to continue to intercept and store our communications. There has been a lot of criticism of the bill both for its content and how it has been rushed through Parliament without the normal amount of debate and scrutiny.

When MPs debate and introduce legislation centred around the use of technology and how it impacts  the people of the U.K I would like to think that they have an appreciation and understanding  of that technology , so I was annoyed when it was reported that Helen Goodman Labour M.P for Bishop Auckland called for MAC addresses to be tied to individuals.  I am writing this before Hansard was publish so not sure of the exact quote but if that is what she said then it is simply idiotic.

A MAC address isn't like a passport or driving licence that requires checks and more checks to be made by the government before they are handed out. MAC addresses are created on machines in the Far East and randomly sent all around the world.  They move locations and between people all the time. To try and keep track of who is using a particular address at any one time is absolutely ridiculous.  Not only that but it is possible to  mask and  change MAC addresses both for legitimate reasons but also for illegitimate reasons to gain access to networks without revealing information about the connecting device.  So not only would any attempt at tying MAC addresses to individuals be massively difficult it would also be pointless for trying to catch terrorists and pedophiles

It really goes to show how little idea M.Ps have of technology and the digital world today.  Just as the government wants everybody to learn to code and understand technology I wish MPs of all parties would take their advice it might help a little.

 UPDATE:  Hansard for yesterday has been published.  The reference to trying to tie MAC Addresses to an individual can be found at www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201415/cmhansrd/cm140715/debtext/140715-0003.htm#14071561000762 

4th Paragraph under the section 15 July 2014 : Column 748 

 

 

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