Are AirTags a Stalker’s Dream? Maybe

The problem is, they might be too good

Key Takeaways

  • AirTags make tracking people trivially easy.
  • Apple’s built-in safeguards are significant against unknown stalkers.
  • Easy hacks could make AirTags undetectable.
Someone using a smartphone to track an AirTag they are holding.

Đức Trịnh / Unsplash

Are Apple’s AirTags a tool for stalkers? Or is this the usual knee-jerk hype that comes with every new Apple product?

AirTags are little pucks that let you track and find bags, pets, and keys. They also allow you to track people, which of course, raises privacy concerns. Apple has several built-in safeguards to stop people from tracking others with AirTags, but do they work? Can abusive spouses use these cool little tracker tiles to terrorize their partners? Can cops use them for unauthorized tracking?

"Apple has taken extraordinary steps to prevent stalkers from using the AirTag as a tracking device, but like any technology, bad actors have gone to extraordinary steps to circumvent that," Ryszard (Rick) Gold of Apple repair and support company The Stem Group told Lifewire via email. 

How AirTags Track

AirTags are designed to let you find any object the way you can find a lost iPhone—using the built-in Find My app. They do so by emitting a periodic Bluetooth blip. This anonymous blip gets picked up by any passing iPhone and passed on to Apple, along with the location of this interaction.

When you open the Find My app to track an AirTag, Apple uses some clever, non-identifying tech to show the location of that tag.

Safety Measures

Apple already tries to mitigate privacy breaches. If your own iPhone detects that an unknown AirTag is following you around, it shows an alert on its screen. And if the AirTag is out of range of its "parent" phone for three days or more, it starts bleeping. Anyone with access to your iPhone can disable these alerts.

An AirTag and an iPhone, with the AirTag connection shown on the iPhone screen.

Apple

That’s where the problems begin. If you use an Android phone, then you won’t get any warning for three days. If you’re being tracked by an abusive spouse or somebody else who is frequently near you, then the three-day warning will never sound because the AirTag never leaves the tracking phone's range for long enough to trigger it.

If a person tries to escape their abusive partner, then three days can be plenty to find out where they’ve escaped to.

That’s a very specific set of circumstances: Your stalker must use an iPhone, they must be near you almost daily, and you must use a non-Apple phone. But thanks to the sheer number of iPhones out there, it’s not an uncommon set of circumstances.

The Apple Amplification Effect

AirTags don’t actually know their location, nor do they ever connect to the internet in any way. Instead, the system relies on the 1 billion Apple devices that are capable of picking up and passing on a signal from an AirTag. This is the AirTags’ biggest advantage and maybe Apple’s biggest problem.

"That’s a very specific set of circumstances... But thanks to the sheer number of iPhones out there, it’s not an uncommon set of circumstances."

Other tracking devices exist, but none have the reach of AirTags, thanks to Apple’s incredible network effect. Stalkers can use GPS trackers, but they need to be able to "see" the GPS satellites to figure out where they are, then use a cellular phone connection to pass that information on. This requires more power, so a GPS-based tracker can never last for a year or more, like an AirTag.

Then there are trackers like the Tile, which works the same way as the AirTag, only it doesn’t have its software built into a billion iPhones. This makes them less effective for tracking, but also less effective for stalking.

Fixes and Hacks

Apple could further mitigate these stalking possibilities with software changes. It could decrease the three-day limit for lost tags, and it could require authentication to disable the unknown-AirTag-detected alerts on the iPhone. 

But how far can it really go here? After all, if a bad actor has physical access to your iPhone and also knows your passcode, then there are plenty of other ways to stalk you and terrorize you—including using Find My just to track your iPhone.

You also can hack AirTags to make them more stalker-friendly. You can, for instance, remove the speaker coil from inside the AirTag, rendering it mute and allowing it to track non-iPhone users for months.

It’s also possible to remove the guts of an AirTag and encase it in a more-easily-hidden card. A security researcher already has hacked the AirTags’ software, bringing about the possibility of customizing how they work.

This kind of hacking might seem esoteric, but it’s not a stretch to imagine a stalker removing the speaker of an AirTag, or police officers similarly modifying them and putting them in a magnetic casing to unlawfully track vehicles, for example. 

Are AirTags a Privacy Threat?

AirTags are designed to track things, and they do a great job. Like any tool, they can be used for good and bad. The bad, in this case, is actually pretty bad. In theory, AirTags might be better designed than other trackers, and it’s clear that Apple has thought through at least some of the privacy indications.

But it’s the size of Apple’s Find My network that amplifies these issues, turning electronic stalking from a curiosity exploited only by the tech-savvy into a simple device that anyone can use. In some ways, that’s a good description of Apple’s entire business, which adds some irony to this particular panic.

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