How iOS 15's Tracking-While-Off Feature Could Thwart Thieves

Well, sort of

  • iOS 15 lets you track recent-model iPhones just like AirTags.
  • Older devices will be trackable without an internet connection (but still need to be on).
  • iPhones and other iOS 15 gear will be trackable even after a factory reset.
iPhone laying in the grass next to fall leaves.

Unsplash / Saketh Garuda

In iOS 15, you’ll be able to “Find My” iPhone even when it’s switched off. Did iPhone theft just become pointless?

If you own a recent (iPhone 11 or newer) iPhone, then it will soon be impossible for thieves to block its Find My tracking feature. Right now, the phone works out its own location, and reports back whenever you look it up in Apple’s Find My app. In iOS 15, the iPhone will behave more like the passive AirTag, allowing you to continue tracking it even when powered off. It’s a radical move, and a welcome one. But it won’t deter all thieves.

“Thieves will steal target iPhones even though these phones are capable of pinging their location when off, with or without an internet connection,” network engineer Eric McGee told Lifewire via email. “However, instead of reselling the stolen iPhones, most thieves strip these gadgets for parts, which they sell to repair shops and stores.”

How It Works

Thanks to the inclusion of Apple’s Ultra-Wideband (UWB) chip, iPhones 11 and 12 can work just like the AirTags tracker. Even when the iPhone is powered off, it will continue to emit a Bluetooth blip that can be picked up by passing iOS devices, and passed on privately and anonymously to the phone’s owner. 

"I think there will always be theft of iPhones. Savvy thieves will learn how to disable this feature and make tracking useless."

This means that the only way to block tracking in these phones is to block the Bluetooth signal, perhaps by keeping them in a Faraday cage of some kind. 

Users of older devices don’t miss out entirely. While your iPad or older iPhone cannot be tracked when switched off, it still will be trackable even without an internet connection while switched on. This means that even a Wi-Fi-only iPad will be trackable in iPadOS 15. 

Masked person taking iPhone out of a purse in a car

Getty Images / D-Keine

iOS devices already are hardened against theft. Right now you can track them while they remain online and you can remote-wipe them to protect your data, although once you’ve wiped the phone, you cannot continue tracking it. That changes in iOS 15, too. Even after a factory reset, your device will remain tied to your Apple ID, and it will remain trackable. 

Unless some dodgy software tool is developed or updated to work around these restrictions, the market for stolen iPhones and iPads should slowly start to dry up. The alternative, as McGee points out, is for thieves to strip the phones for parts like they do with stolen cars. Others are less hopeful.

“I think there will always be theft of iPhones. Savvy thieves will learn how to disable this feature and make tracking useless,” Christen Costa, CEO of Gadget Review, told Lifewire via email. 

Lost and Found

It’s not just a theft-deterrent, of course. This addition to Find My will make it a lot easier to find genuinely lost phones, even when you’re out of cell phone coverage. Dropped your iPhone while out on a hike? No problem, as long as it’s a popular route with other iPhone users passing by. 

Left your phone in the changing room at a clothes store at the mall, but you can’t remember which one? No problem!

Phone grabbed from your bag while you were on the subway, and the thief knew enough to power it off as soon as they took it? No problem! As long as you have access to another device to check the Find My network, and you’re tough enough to take that phone back when you find the thief. 

Privacy

If we’ve learned anything from cop TV shows, it’s that switching your phone off stops the police or the mob from tracking you and that almost no scriptwriters understand how GPS really works (it’s like a lighthouse, not like the internet). But what if you have a phone that keeps pinging, even when powered down? 

The good news is, you just have to switch off this feature in the settings. Here are a couple of screenshots via Apple rumor site 9to5Mac showing the setting on U1-equipped phones, and on non-U1 chips. 

Find My Network toggles in iOS 15

What if you don’t trust this setting? Well, you’re not any worse off than in iOS 14 or earlier, unless you believe that Apple also started lying about its setting in iOS 15, but not before. 

We’ll see how this affects theft, but if nothing else, the convenience of never being able to actually lose your iPhone again is pretty great—especially for a simple software update. This is going to be a great feature once people know about it, so spread the word.

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