What Is a MAC Address? Why Should I Protect It?

Last Updated on May 7, 2024

Among my worst fears is being framed for a crime I didn’t commit. That’s a side effect of watching too many crime dramas, and I realize it’s unlikely to happen. But if it did?

Could you imagine going to prison, or even just paying a fine, when you didn’t do anything wrong?

If that sounds terrifying to you as well, you should learn about your MAC address. Under the right circumstances, a hacker could use your MAC address to partake in nefarious online activity, and there would be no way of proving it wasn’t you

Sure, that’s a worst-case scenario, and it’s unlikely to happen, but knowing what a MAC address is and how to protect it is still a good idea, especially since it’s not that hard to keep it safe. 

So, in this article, I’ll explain everything you need to know about MAC addresses, including what they are, why you should protect them, and how to do so. 

Ready to learn? Let’s go. 

💯 Act Now: Misuse of a MAC address could lead to identity theft. Protect yourself from this and other threats by signing up for Aura today.

Bridge MAC Address Ageing Time

Photo by Ask Xmodulo

What Is a MAC Address? 

Starting with the basics, a MAC address is a Media Access Control address. It can also be referred to as a:

  • Physical address
  • Burned-in address
  • Hardware address

It’s a code of twelve alpha-numeric symbols that appear in six pairs on a device’s network interface card (NIC), and it looks something like this: 

1A:2B:3A:4C:53:7A

Every device needs a MAC address to connect to the internet or send and receive data. So, it’s a very important piece of information. 

Difference Between MAC Address an IP Address

At this point, you might be thinking a MAC address sounds very similar to an IP address. After all, doesn’t an IP address also allow you to connect to the internet

Yes, it does, but major differences exist between a MAC address and an IP address.  Understanding them makes our MAC address definition clearer. 

  1. A MAC address identifies a particular piece of hardware. An IP address identifies the connection.
  2. MAC addresses are static, which makes sense, given that they are connected to the physical device. Conversely, IP addresses constantly change.
  3. MAC addresses come from the hardware manufacturer. They are factory-assigned.  IP addresses are assigned by the network admin or ISP (internet service provider). 

How MAC Addresses Work

How to spoof the MAC address of a network interface

Photo by xmodulo.com

If you’re still struggling to understand the difference between MAC addresses and IP addresses, this might help. 

Your devices connect to the Internet via a router. When your device detects a new router, it sends its MAC address. This allows the device to form a connection with the router. 

Then, the router assigns your device an IP address, allowing you to connect to the internet. 

So, you need both a MAC address and an IP address to get online, but the MAC address identifies your physical device, whether it be a phone, computer, or tablet. It tells the router, “Hi! This is who I am, and I’d like to go online.” And the router responds with “Nice to meet you, here’s where you go.”  – and then sends an IP address

Why You Should Protect Your MAC Address

Because a MAC address connects to a physical device, it’s not very tempting to most hackers. I won’t say it’s hard to hack, but going after a MAC address for your personal phone or tablet isn’t what most hackers want. There are far bigger prizes to aim towards. 

That means that, generally, your MAC address is secure.

However, you should still take basic steps to protect it. To prove my point, let’s look at what can happen if someone gets ahold of your MAC address. 

1. Location Tracking

In 2013, Renew London, a UK-based advertising firm, hid tracking devices in street trashcans. They weren’t worried about the trashcans going missing. Rather they were using the devices to record the MAC addresses of devices that passed by

So, as people went about their day-to-day business, the firm’s trackers used their individual MAC addresses to record their movements. They could see the speed, movement pattern and direction of anyone who had their phone or tablet’s Wi-Fi turned on. 

Renew owned the trash bins they were using, and the program was, perhaps surprisingly, completely legal. 

If you don’t like the idea of advertisers using “real-world cookies” to track your daily habits, you might want to learn how to protect your MAC address.  

2. MAC Address Spoofing

MAC address spoofing allows a hacker to impersonate one of your devices and log onto the same Wi-Fi. They do this by stealing one of your device’s MAC addresses and giving it to one of their devices. 

This can lead to a few different issues. 

If the hacker logs onto Wi-Fi using your MAC address at the same time as you, the router will get confused. Sometimes it will boot you both offline, which means the hacker has effectively blocked your internet access. Other times, the router will simply shut down entirely. 

The worst-case scenario occurs when the hacker has more nefarious purposes. Sometimes hackers use address spoofing to partake in illegal online activities. Because MAC address spoofing allows hackers to pretend to be you on the Internet, it will look like you’re doing something illegal

In other words, MAC address spoofing lets someone frame you for a crime

The Real Prize

As I said, the MAC address on your laptop or phone is probably secure because getting it isn’t a big prize. Unless your ex is a hacker or someone really wants to frame you for a crime, your personal MAC address is safe. 

But every internet-connected device has a MAC address, not just the personal devices you use. So let’s look at the real concern around this topic.

Spoofing a Router’s MAC Address

MAC address spoofing gets scary when you consider public Wi-Fi. If a hacker gets the MAC address for a router connected to a public Wi-Fi network in an airport or city library, they could set up a fake network. 

Then, when people use that Wi-Fi network, the hacker can see and record everything they do. This allows them to collect sensitive data. So, if someone does their online banking or logs into their health insurance account, the hacker can steal that information and either use it for themselves or sell it on the dark web.  

MAC Address Safety Basics 

There are several steps you can take to protect your MAC address. You can also take steps to ensure hackers can’t get your information even if they’ve spoofed a public Wi-Fi router’s MAC address

Turn Off Your Wi-Fi

The easiest thing you can do is to turn off your Wi-Fi when you’re not connected to your home network. Renew London could only track the MAC addresses of pedestrian devices because their Wi-Fi was on

If your Wi-Fi isn’t on, no one can track your MAC address because your device isn’t giving it to the router. It’s a good idea to get into the habit of turning your Wi-Fi off on your phone and other devices before you leave the house. 

That way, if the Minority Report-like future that certain marketing companies envision comes to fruition, you don’t have to worry about it – or at least you won’t have to worry about it as much. 

Be Careful With Where and How You Connect

Person Holding Iphone Beside Black Portable Speaker

Photo by Burst

Ideally, you’ll only connect to Wi-Fi at home, where you know the connection is secure. But in reality, that’s not practical. 

Whether you’re stuck at the airport, doing research at a university library, or just want to get some work done at your local coffee shop, at some point, you’re going to use a public WIFI connection

When you do, keep the following in mind: 

Assume you’re being watched. It’s safer this way. What would you avoid doing if someone was standing over your shoulder, watching your every keystroke? You probably wouldn’t log into your bank account or enter your credit card information.

That’s the way you should act when you’re using public Wi-Fi because, using MAC address spoofing, a hacker could be watching.
Use a VPN. A VPN won’t hide your MAC address, but it does hide your IP address, making internet browsing on public Wi-Fi a bit safer.
Stay on encrypted sites. If a hacker follows you to an encrypted site on public Wi-Fi, they can still download the information, but it won’t do them much good. The information will be encrypted, meaning they won’t be able to read it, at least not easily

You can tell if a site is encrypted by looking at the URL. 

google search bar

Notice Google’s URL begins with “HTTPS.”  The “S” means the site is encrypted. Sites that don’t have an “S” and begin with “HTTP” aren’t encrypted and aren’t as safe. Avoid them when you’re using public Wi-Fi. 

Spoof Your Own MAC Address

Another way to protect your MAC address is to spoof it yourself. This allows you to create a fake MAC address for your device’s NIC. 

The exact method for doing this varies by device type, but it’s always relatively easy. Usually, you can go into your device’s settings, input a new MAC address, then restart your device, and viola! – You’ve got a spoofed MAC address. 

While this absolutely will work to protect your MAC address, I don’t recommend this method in general. It’s exactly what hackers do when they impersonate your devices, and that means system administrators frown upon it.

If you’re going to try it, you’ll want to note your original MAC address so that you can change it back if and when needed.  

MAC Randomization

Rather than spoofing your own MAC address, I recommend trying MAC randomization. In this method, your device will cycle through a series of fake MAC addresses when it’s not connected to Wi-Fi. Once you connect to Wi-Fi, the cycling stops in order to provide a stable connection. 

Newer Apple products have MAC address randomization as an automatic feature, so if you’re using an Apple laptop or iPhone, you don’t have to worry about your MAC address. 

Android and Windows devices typically include this feature as well, but you may have to activate it. It’s typically not automatic. 

Here’s how to turn MAC randomization on for your Android and Windows devices.

For Andriod 5 or later:

  1. Navigate to “Settings,” then “Network and Internet”
  2. Tap “Wi-Fi” and then select your network.
  3. Tap “Advanced,” then “Privacy” 
  4. Select “Use Randomized MAC”

For Windows devices:

  1. Tap the “Windows” icon
  2. Click “Settings”
  3. Select “Network and Internet,” then “Wi-Fi”
  4. Select your network, then “Random hardware addresses”
  5. From there, you can select “On” or “Change Daily” – either will cycle your MAC address 

Identity Protection 

Even if you’re careful about using public Wi-Fi, have a VPN, and have MAC address randomization turned on, you’re still somewhat vulnerable. That’s just the nature of internet use – nothing can protect your information completely. 

That’s why I also recommend investing in an identity protection service. Doing so serves several purposes. 

First, a good identity protection service will monitor the dark web for signs of your personal information. If you know what’s out there, and virtually all of us have something out there, you can take proactive steps to protect yourself. 

Second, identity protection services typically include identity restoration and identity theft insurance

💯 Act Now: Aura is a fantastic identity theft protection service that provides identity restoration services, alerts on your accounts, and identity theft insurance for you and your family.

That means that if a hacker manages to steal your information using a spoofed MAC address or by some other means, you can still rest easy. Your identity protection service will help you repair any damages to your credit score or other records, and you can use your insurance coverage to repay stolen funds and expenses. 

Finally, the best identity protection services offer digital security tools like VPNs, password managers, and antivirus software that make browsing the Internet safer – even if you’re using public Wi-Fi. 

If you’re looking for a good identity protection service, you should consider Aura. It offers everything I’ve mentioned above, plus several other safety features. And it’s available at a very affordable rate when you use our discount code. 

We’ve also done extensive testing on other identity protection services. Read our reviews and find out which one is right for you. Ultimately, having protection from one of these services is better than having none. 

Final Thoughts 

It’s unlikely that someone will steal your MAC address and frame you for an online crime – though it could happen. However, criminals steal MAC addresses for public Wi-Fi routers, creating security issues. 

Advertisers and marketers also use MAC addresses to track their customers, which feels like an invasion of privacy. 

💯 Act Now: Get Aura’s identity theft service to protect your family from identity theft and keep your information safe. Sign up today for 68% off and a 14-day free trial.

Luckily, there are easy things you can do to protect your MAC address and stay safe online. Using MAC address randomization, being careful of your Wi-Fi connection, and investing in an identity protection service such as Aura are all great ways to make browsing the Internet much safer.