Naming your Devices To Protect Your Privacy

About 2 months ago I realized that my computer-naming scheme was horribly bland. My Macbook Air, for example, was named “JWMBA”. The Macbook Pro? “JWMBP”. Worse yet were the phones and tablets. “Jon Westfall’s iPhone” was a mouthful to say and write. And despite the vague nature of some of the names, I was also potentially exposing myself to a breach of privacy. Here’s why.

When you connect up to a network, your computer starts listening and sending broadcast messages, helping other computers find it and, in turn, helping you find other computers. If you use Mac or Windows, you can find lists of “nearby” devices either in Finder or Explorer.

Showing network devices in Finder or Explorer
Network devices in Finder and Explorer

Now on your home network, this isn’t a big deal. However think about other networks you connect your devices to. Workplace networks, coffee shops, restaurants, etc… If your device is broadcasting your name, you’ve given strangers a piece of information about you that could be used in devious ways. “Jane Smith’s iPhone” gives someone the ability to glance toward a group of people and say “Hey Jane”, and when you look up, they can pretend to be an old friend (“how the Smiths are doing?”). From there at the least you’ve got a new friend, and at the worst you might have someone looking to scam some money from you (“Oh, yea, I understand why you wouldn’t remember me… it’s been tough these last few years, people forget about me and I’m nearly broke…”).

Now if you name your device something nondescript, like “Patrick” and someone calls out “Hey Patrick”, you won’t look up. And even if you do, being Jane, you’re not likely to be picked up as Patrick’s owner.

Obviously this isn’t the most secure way to connect to a network in a hidden fashion (The most secure way isn’t to connect at all), but it is one level of obfuscation that might be useful. And it’s a lot of fun to say things like “Dang it, I forgot Patrick at home again” in public.

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