Why This AirTag Lawsuit Sparked Debate Over Stalking and Privacy

They're handy devices that can be used against you

  • AirTags are meant to help you find lost items, but stalkers also use them.
  • A lawsuit seeks damages against Apple for failing to include safeguards against stalking. 
  • One expert says that AirTags can be a factor in domestic abuse cases.
Someone holding an Apple AirTag and an iPhone, looking at location data for the tag.

Đức Trịnh / Unspalsh

You might want to watch out for electronic trackers that reveal your location. 

A lawsuit aimed at Apple and its AirTags tracker claims the device has "become the weapon of choice of stalkers and abusers." The suit accuses Apple of failing to introduce effective safeguards that would prevent stalkers from using AirTags to track people. Experts say that electronic tracking devices are a growing problem. 

"Generally speaking, all our mobile devices are problematic," Mark Kapczynski the CMO of OneRep, a company that helps users erase their data from the web, told Lifewire in an email interview. "The AirTag simply took tracking to the next level. We were already vulnerable to the antics of Big Tech, business, and government (e.g., ad tracking, surveillance tech). AirTags now extended that vulnerability to run-of-the-mill criminals and everyday offenders."

Tag or Tracker?

The lawsuit seeks damages for US owners of iOS or Android-based devices who were tracked by AirTag or are 'at risk' of being stalked because of Apple's actions. Two women involved with the lawsuit said the devices had been used by their former partners to track them.

Apple did not respond to a request for comment about the lawsuit. But the computer giant said in February that it was responding to privacy complaints about AirTags. 

"We've become aware that individuals can receive unwanted tracking alerts for benign reasons, such as when borrowing someone's keys with an AirTag attached, or when traveling in a car with a family member's AirPods left inside," the company wrote in a news release.

"We also have seen reports of bad actors attempting to misuse AirTag for malicious or criminal purposes," K. Campbell, an Enterprise Security Risk Management (ESRM) at Bolante.NET, said via email. 

AirTags are a privacy risk, particularly with stalking, because they are discrete, easily hidden, and can be left behind. "But worse than bugs, AirTags don't have to be physically close to the stalker. Stalkers can use AirTags while they're in another state or even country," Campbell added. 

... AirTags don't have to be physically close to the stalker. Stalkers can use AirTags while they're in another state or even country.

The technology behind the AirTag makes stalking alarmingly easy, Kapczynski said. Before Airtag, an offender who wanted to find their victim's address had to rely on Google, social media, or people-search sites, he added. 

"With this technology, a stalker can simply slip a tiny tracker into the victim's purse, or stick it to a car, and follow their victim's every step using her own smartphone," Kapczynski said.

A Potential Tool for Abuse

Michelle Donnelly, a professor at Vermont Law & Graduate School who specializes in domestic violence, said in an email to Lifewire that AirTags specifically can be privacy risks in stalking within the confines of an intimate partner relationship or even among strangers, "because they're small, they're cheap, they're easy to get, they're easy to use, and they're easy to hide."

AirTags have been hidden under the carpet in a car to keep track of where the vehicle is, slipped into a pocketbook so that they're always on the person, or put into a coat pocket, Donnelly said, because they can be used to keep tabs on someone, and that could come with accusations of cheating.

Closeup on someone holding an Apple AirTag.

Onur Binay / Unsplash

"For example, 'I know that you are over in this part of town, where your ex lives,' or 'I know where you are; I know where you're going. I can find you and get to you at any time that I want to; you'd better act how I want because you're not going to be able to hide from me,'" Donnelly said.

Cybersecurity expert Burton Kelso noted in an email that Apple has changed their AirTags so that people using iPhones will detect an unknown AirTag that is not part of their family of devices. Samsung has also added a feature in its SmartThings app that will detect unknown AirTags that may be hidden on their person and around them. 

"If you find an unknown AirTag, immediately remove the battery so it can longer track you," Kelso said. "Also, locate the serial number on the back of the AirTag [and] contact law enforcement, who can use the serial number to track the offender. Also, after leaving public spots and before heading home, check your person to make sure no one has planted an AirTag on you."

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