Apple’s AirTags are small keyring-sized discs that you can attach to your bag or keys to help find them if they go missing. This useful technology, however, is ripe for abuse. Here’s why AirTags have been making the headlines for the wrong reasons.
What’s the Problem With AirTags?
Though AirTags were introduced by Apple in 2020, the technology isn’t a new innovation. A company called Tile released small battery-powered tracking devices called “tiles” in 2015 which used the same basic premise. They work almost identically to an AirTag, allowing a user to detect an item by proximity (30 meters or 100 ft over Bluetooth 4.0) and connecting to the wider “crowd GPS” network.
When a user with the Tile app comes into contact with one of the trackers, an update is sent anonymously to the owner indicating the general location of the item. The problem with this approach is that it required users to already use the Tile app to work, so its utility is limited to populous areas with lots of Tile users.
Apple’s AirTags work almost identically. You can use your iPhone to detect an AirTag at a distance of around 100 meters (or 300 ft) thanks to the use of ultra-wideband Bluetooth and Apple’s U1 chip on newer smartphones. Each AirTag can be detected by other iPhones running iOS 14.5 or later, sending the owner an anonymous update of where the item was last seen when it comes into range.
Since AirTags piggyback the existing network of iPhones, they are far more useful than Tile’s implementation of the same concept. Users no longer need to run an app or use a third-party service to play a part in the wider “crowd GPS” network. This means there are many more chances for your AirTag to be picked up by an iPhone and have its location recorded.
This is the reason you should probably buy an AirTag over a Tile if you use an iPhone and want to keep track of your personal belongings. It’s also the reason that AirTags are seen as a much greater privacy risk than any tracker that came before.
How AirTags Are Being Used by Stalkers
Since AirTags are small, they can easily be slipped inside of a bag or a pocket without being noticed. The AirTag can then be tracked using the wider “crowd GPS” network when out of range or using an iPhone that’s close enough to use local tracking.
AirTags have a speaker on-board that allows the owner to emit a sound, but this speaker is also used as a privacy safeguard. If the tracker is away from its owner for a set amount of time, it will chirp repeatedly until it is found or disabled. When AirTags first launched, this window was three days. Apple has since updated the window to between 8 and 24 hours.
Another safeguard delivers an “AirTag Found Moving With You” message to iPhone users if an AirTag they do not own appears to be tracking them. They can then tap on this notification which opens Apple’s Find My app, where they can tap “Play Sound” and attempt to locate the AirTag.
There have been a few high-profile examples of AirTags being used to stalk people already. A model in New York had an AirTag slipped into her coat pocket which tracked her movements for five hours before she noticed an alert on her iPhone. Another woman was tracked from a theater to her home where she noticed an unknown vehicle parked outside after receiving the alert. The vehicle left as she approached.
In another incident, a Connecticut man was charged with first-degree stalking after hiding an AirTag inside a vehicle following a domestic dispute. This underlines the severity of tracking a person against their will in a legal context. AirTags may make it easier than ever, but the law is the same whether you’re using a sophisticated battery-powered GPS connected to a SIM card or a $30 coin-sized AirTag.
Car Thieves Are Tracking Vehicles With AirTags
There are emerging reports of car thieves also using AirTags to track vehicles, both for stalking purposes and car theft. Once a thief locates a car they want to steal, they may attempt to conceal an AirTag somewhere on the vehicle and then trace its location. The vehicle can then later be tracked and stolen.
One police department reported that only five (of thousands) of reported thefts were linked to AirTags. Victims of stalking have found AirTags hidden in wheel wells, a tactic that could be used by would-be car thieves. Thus far, car thefts involving AirTags seem to be rare, but the potential is there.
Another issue with AirTags on cars is that if the tracking device is located outside of the vehicle, the driver may not realize it’s there even if it’s making a sound. A noisy urban environment may make the sound difficult to hear, or the driver may think nothing of the sound.
Only iPhone users get passive alerts about AirTags that are tracking them, and older iPhones may not receive an alert at all. Android users need to download an app to get this functionality, which requires a manual scan.
So-Called “Silent AirTags” Raise Further Concerns
The one AirTag safeguard that’s designed to help everyone—regardless of whether you use an iPhone or Android smartphone—is the sound an AirTag emits after a certain period of absence from its “home” device. But the emergence of modified “Silent AirTags” that appeared for sale on eBay and Etsy raises even greater privacy concerns over the potential for abuse.
By disabling the speaker inside the AirTag then reassembling the tracker, these modified AirTags have no stalking safeguard beyond the digital signal that can be detected by iPhones and Android devices with Apple’s tracking app. The seller claimed that the modified AirTags were designed for use in instances where the AirTags may be away from home for longer than a day. Modifying AirTags in such a way isn’t necessarily illegal.
The Etsy listing was removed, and an eBay search for “silent airtag” or “stealth airtag” doesn’t (at the time of writing) reveal any items for sale. Nevertheless, the idea is out there and the modification is easy to make.
How to Detect Nearby AirTags
iPhone users should rely on iOS’ built-in tracking detection and pay attention to any alerts they receive. You can tap on the notification and then play a sound if you think an AirTag is being used to track you. The Find My app will then provide you with instructions on how to disable it.
Android users must scan manually using Apple’s Tracker Detect app. This app can detect any tracker that’s compatible with the Find My network and will also help users to play a sound to locate and disable the tracker if foul play is suspected. One How-To Geek staff member found that the Android app isn’t great at detecting AirTags, but it’s still worth a try if you suspect something.
Another way of finding an AirTag is by listening out for the distinctive chirp. You can hear this sound in Apple’s instructional video. If you hear this sound then you should take a look around to see if you can find an AirTag. You may be able to help someone find their lost keys or bag, or you may find that you are being tracked against your will.
If you do find an AirTag that you suspect is being used to track you, don’t throw it away or destroy it! Disable it as per Apple’s instructions then approach law enforcement with your findings. AirTags are anonymous so that individuals can’t see who an item belongs to, but Apple keeps track of the Apple ID used to register an AirTag. This information can be obtained by law enforcement if you keep the AirTag, and each one has a serial number that is linked to an Apple ID. By disposing of an AirTag, you’re disposing of important information that could bring a stalker or would-be thief to justice.
AirTags Are Genuinely Useful
While there are some serious privacy concerns raised by tracking devices that can be followed all over the world, AirTags are still very useful trackers. There are some things you probably shouldn’t track with them, and some things that are ideal for tracking. You can even use them with the Shortcuts app to trigger automations.
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