Apple launched AirTags during the Spring Loaded 2021 event last month and made them available for less than $30. While this tiny puck-like smart tracker helps users in locating their lost devices, it also has the potential to be misused for stalking someone without them even knowing about it. According to a report from Washington Post’s Geoffrey Fowler, Apple AirTags can be (mis)used for covert stalking. Although there are a few safeguards that Apple has built into AirTags to prevent them from being used to track other people, they “just aren’t sufficient,” said Fowler in his report.
Fowler teamed up with one of his colleagues and planted an AirTag tracker on himself. He then allowed the colleague to pretend to be stalking him for over a week, only to conclude that the AirTags are a “new means of inexpensive, effective stalking.” Note that Apple does provide some safeguards to prevent such misuse of AirTags by providing alerts on both tracker and an iPhone. These include providing privacy alerts to let iPhone users know that an unknown tracker is traveling with them, and the regular sound alerts when an AirTag tracker has been separated from its owner for three days. Here’s what Fowler found in over a week-long of tracking.
Apple AirTags Need More Safeguards to Prevent Stalking
In a week-long event of tracking through the Apple AirTags, Fowler found that both the hidden AirTag (planted in his backpack) and his iPhone gave alerts. The AirTag tracker that was used to stalk Fowler started playing a sound after three days, which lasted for “just 15 seconds.” The light chirping sound that the AirTag produced was about 60 decibels. The period of 15 seconds is too small and it can be easily missed by the victim if the AirTag is placed by the stalker under something.
Fowler also found that this 15-second alert keeps ringing periodically after a gap of a few hours. Another thing is that the three-day countdown timer resets itself after the AirTag comes in contact with the owner (stalker’s) iPhone, meaning if the stalker lives with or nearby the victim, the sound may never activate.
Another safeguard that Apple uses is the alerts about an unknown AirTag tracker on a user’s iPhone. It means that if an unknown AirTag is planted on you or moving with you, you’ll receive alerts about it on your iPhone. However, Fowler points out that these alerts are not available to Android users. So if the victim is an Android user and doesn’t have an iPhone, he won’t even have a clue about the unknown AirTag moving with him.
AirTag uses Apple’s Find My network to provide location information, which updates once every few minutes. The one planted on Fowler reported his exact location while he was at home. His colleague received all his location information via the Find My network, sitting far away.
The Washington Post report also says that Apple is still improving its anti-tracking measures and they can be bolstered over time. Kaiann Drance, Apple’s vice president of iPhone marketing, told the agency that the safeguards built into AirTags are an “industry-first, strong set of proactive deterrents.” She said, “it’s a smart and tunable system, and we can continue improving the logic and timing so that we can improve the set of deterrents.”