Most of us own at least one Apple product, or know someone that does. However, Apple has recently faced some controversy over the safety of one of their newer products, the AirTag.
What is AirTag?
Released in April 2021, the AirTag is a wireless Bluetooth device that allows users to keep track of their possessions, such as keys and wallets. The AirTag is small, roughly the size of a coin, and costs $29. AirTags pair with Apple’s Find My app in order to help Apple users locate lost belongings.
The concept of the AirTag is a useful one. According to Vivint, an American home security company, every year more than 20 million people in the United States lose their car and house keys.
However, there have been some instances of AirTags being used to track people instead of belongings. The BBC has been told by multiple women they were followed, by means of an unwanted AirTag. It has also been reported that one woman even found an unknown AirTag taped to the inside of her bag.
The director of Cyber-Security at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Eva Galperin, told the BBC: “If you create an item which is useful for tracking stolen items, then you have also created a perfect tool for stalking”. Galperin went on to say that she had spoken to multiple people who had found unknown AirTags on their person.
Apple stated that the issue of unwanted tracking had been taken “seriously in the design of AirTag”. And in the creation of “the first-ever proactive system to alert you of unwanted tracking”.
However, Apple acknowledged reports of AirTags being misused and set down the proposed improvements to the device’s safety features.
Apple product users receive a notification on their device if an AirTag (that has been separated from its registered owner) has been detected moving with them. On the Find My app users can see a map of where the AirTag was found near their own Apple device.
The app displays where the unknown AirTag has been seen near the user. It then tracks whether the AirTag moves as the user does.
Previously, Apple alerted users when an unknown AirTag is nearby, through an alarm. The alarm beeped after an AirTag had been away from its registered owner for anywhere between 8 and 24 hours. However, the alarm sounded at about 60 decibels – roughly the volume level of a normal conversation between 2 people.
As Eva Galperin pointed out to the BBC, this sound could easily be muffled and “impossible to be heard by putting it, say under your car bumper”. The length of time before the alarm sounded also raised concerns, with arguments that in a case of emergency this could, unfortunately, be too late.
Apple plans to update this alert system so that users are notified earlier to the presence of an unknown AirTag nearby. They are also increasing the volume of the alarm. Apple has said that it will use “more of the loudest tones” with the hope that a lounder sound will make an unwanted AirTag easier to find.
When the sound is triggered, Apple will also send an alert to the users device that they are near an unknown AirTag. This alert will allow users to take further action, such as triggering the unknown AirTag to play a sound again so that it can be located.
The alert will also give users the option to activate Precision Finding, another improvement proposed by Apple. The feature allows users who have received an unwanted tracking alert to locate the undesired AirTag more easily and more accurately.
When the user is in range, Precision Finding will display the distance and direction to the unknown AirTag.
Android and AirTags
Of course, AirTags can also be used to track those who do not use Apple products. Apple has designed an app, called Tracker Detect, which alerts Android users to unknown AirTags nearby. It must be downloaded and active for the app to work effectively.
The app is also only compatible with Android version 9 or higher. Furthermore, it is possible to see on Google Play that Tracker Detect has only been downloaded around 100 000 times.
To put this into context, Google announced at last years I/O conference that there are over 3 billion active Android devices.
The Future of AirTag
Apple has also updated its safety information on unwanted tracking. They additionally released in-depth support on how to stay safe with AirTags. Apple also stated that they have been actively working with law enforcement and have updated their website on law enforcement documentation.
Apple has stated that it can provide details of paired accounts (the account with which an AirTag is associated) at a valid request or subpoena from law enforcement.
Any instance of stalking or undesired following is, of course, a serious problem that needs to be fixed. However, Apple has taken steps to reduce the number of instances in which AirTags are involved in unwanted tracking.