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Internet access was once rare, and the speed and reliability with which a device might connect to the rest of the globe were questionable at the best of times. However, today’s version of the internet is much more stable in many areas of the world.
Having the ability to connect to the internet has become a primary feature that any consumer who buys a new computer today will expect. However, for the most part, accessing the internet involves only a little work from the end user. With a modem and a router, any device with Wi-Fi access acquires the necessary credentials and connects to the internet.
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MAC Address: Definition
The computer also has internal components that allow the device to go online. One of these parts is the controller for the network interface, which users commonly know as the NIC. When the NIC is active, it has its identifier. This identifying information is an address for the computer itself called the media access control identifier, otherwise known as the MAC address.
The MAC is part of the overall network segment and is commonplace in communications technology protocols such as Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and wired connections. While you need a virtual address to access the internet, the MAC address is the physical address of your computer hardware.
Because more computer users might be familiar with an IP address when they think of the internet, we’ll go into some detail about what one can do with a MAC address. We will also discuss why both addresses are essential, the relationship between the two, and whether there might be tracking or safety concerns in revealing your MAC address to others.
What Can You Do With a MAC Address?
Before we get into what you might do with the information you get from a MAC address, let’s discuss what it is. For the most part, the MAC address of your computer is a fixed part of the machine.
There are some exceptions, but they usually apply to one computer pretending to be another. They can do this via spoofing, which is why a MAC address’s nature can be crucial to each device and the user who owns it.
In a way, you can think of this address as something in the circuits of each computer. The combination of characters in each address tells you what the unit is. Think of it as the name of a computer.
Because online security is an issue, we will examine this question from the angle of what someone else might do if they find out your MAC address. Some entities that need access to your MAC address are legitimate, but others are not. With legitimate access, the identifier can also act as an authenticator.
For example, a university will allow many students to take online courses through its network. The institution could also allow the students access to its pages to see class information and other data. For the most part, only students who register with the school as current should be able to see or do any of this from their computers.
To give you access to the university’s network as a legitimate student, the administration and IT departments at the school might ask you to provide your MAC address, which usually happens at the start of your first school term. Here, the college identifies your MAC address and gives it access to the school’s Wi-Fi network.
Conversely, let us assume that some malicious entities gain access to your MAC address. If this happens, they may be able to identify your specific machine from within a list of all the devices that connect to a public network.
It can happen even when your IP address changes each time you log in to that network at later dates. The network may assign your computer various IP addresses, but the MAC address is unique to your computer alone.
If malicious entities see your MAC address within a given network enough times, they could track your online activity and what websites you visit regularly.
It includes sensitive data to which only you should have access. With a combination of the correct IP, MAC address, knowledge, and software, a malicious person with enough skill could identify and retrieve sensitive or classified information, including your credentials to various vital institutions.
Beyond possible security concerns, however, your computer needs a MAC address to communicate with other computers and servers over the internet. Whenever you send requests or packets of data from your computer online, your MAC address sends information to another.
When the network adapter in one computer gets a packet of data, it compares the MAC address to its destination address. If they match, the computer processes the data another device sends. If they do not match, the receiving computer will discard the packet.
Why Do We Need Both a MAC Address and an IP Address?
Each has an important role to play. To better understand it, think of your MAC address as permanent and your IP as temporary. The absence of either address leaves your computer not functioning correctly.
With that said, your MAC address should not change. It’s like your computer’s unique digital fingerprint. In a way, it serves much the same function as your fingerprints do for you.
On the other hand, your computer’s IP address is temporary. It will change just like when you move to a different town or country. However, your computer uses both of them to gain proper access to the internet.
The MAC address stays how it is for the entire life of the network card inside your computer. A network card will store those digital fingerprints that identify your computer as unique within a given network.
While your IP address is also unique, your computer uses it as part of that network. So if you change networks or move to another place, you’ll have a different IP.
As you might expect, MAC and IP addresses have their functions. You cannot substitute one for the other. Your MAC address is there to tell a particular network the digital name of your computer, and the IP address helps a network to keep information flowing to a computer operating within it.
The data sent between computers goes through various internet hardware when it moves from point to point. As it does, parts of the hardware may not see which MAC address goes to which computer.
Instead, it sees a particular MAC address as part of a port-and-switch combination, which several computers on the network may use. Because of this, IP addresses are necessary to keep a level of differentiation between several devices connecting to the same network switch.
Is It Safe To Give Out Your MAC Address?
Providing your MAC address isn’t necessarily a problem, but it can be. We’ve discussed how there are legitimate and harmful reasons for it. However, giving out the address is only helpful to bad people who can connect to the same network your device uses.
To do this, they need to be near where you set up your computer. If this is the case, knowing your MAC address may help them. If it happens, the computer they’re using could snag some data that should be for your device alone.
Can You Be Tracked Using Your MAC Address?
Technically, there could be a way to track you through your computer’s MAC. However, the tracker would need to take information from your connection while within the same network as your device.
That connection would also have to be active to acquire any valuable data. However, most tracking involves tapping into information that is on an entirely different layer than the one in which the MAC operates.
Every electronics manufacturer assigns MAC addresses to each product they make. Every new computer with a network card has a pool of MAC addresses from which to choose. The given MAC address becomes the computer’s unique fingerprint.
This address works with different IPs in various networks to give the computer user online access. There are possible security concerns with MAC address exposure, but they usually confine themselves only to other computers in proximity to yours on the same network.