Something in the airtag: digital trackers and their impact on privacy

January 2023
 by Adam Ispahani

Something in the airtag: digital trackers and their impact on privacy

January 2023
 By Adam Ispahani

The Christmas season saw many people acquire new gadgets, including tracking devices to help those who are always losing things to keep track of their belongings and avoid the panic that comes with a lost set of house keys. Of the multiple products that address this issue, the clear favourite is Apple’s AirTags. Their ease of use and low price point have driven a surge in popularity, but questions have been raised about their potential for misuse in a criminal context.

An AirTag is a small coin-shaped device that can be attached to an object to help the owner keep track of it. Bluetooth technology is used, rather than traditional GPS, to enable it to communicate with nearby Apple products, regardless of the owner, and with Apple’s iCloud servers. Due to the number of Apple devices in active use (1.8 billion according to CEO Tim Cook), AirTags are afforded multiple points of reference, enabling them to deliver extremely accurate location data very quickly. AirTags have been integrated into Apple’s “FindMy” infrastructure, making them very easy to use for owners of Apple products, and they have a relatively low price point at around £35.

Cheap and fearful?

The philosophy of creating products that are accessible and easy to use has driven Apple’s consumer device development since the company’s inception, enabling it to create the huge network of devices that now helps AirTags to operate seamlessly. While it is impressive that we can now be guided to the precise location of a lost object, the lack of barriers to entry is concerning.

The very selling points of AirTags make them potentially damaging for individuals who are targeted by their malicious use. Two of their core advantages – ease of use and access – become areas of concern when the tracking devices are placed in the wrong hands. While the large majority of AirTag owners use them as intended, there have been cases where they have been deployed in insidious ways, such as to stalk a targeted individual. AirTags can be very easily concealed and used to track the location of a person when hidden in a pocket or handbag, or even attached to the bumper of a car.

By April 2022, just a year after their launch, a report stated that over 150 police reports had been filed in the US citing the use of AirTags in monitoring the location of a person. More recent police reports have detailed their involvement in other crimes ranging from car theft to burglary. Apple is currently facing a lawsuit, filed in San Francisco, from two women claiming AirTags were used by their stalkers. The women are seeking unspecified damages for alleged negligence.

Protecting yourself from being tracked

Apple has responded to growing public concern over the issue by committing to working with law enforcement to help identify those who misuse its products, as well as rolling out a number of software updates that help combat the problem. AirTags now emit a high-pitched beeping sound if separated from their registered owner for a period of time ranging from 8 to 24 hours, which can alert potential victims that they are being tracked. However, this sound is easy to muffle and can even be disabled altogether, with instructions on how to do so readily available online.

Another major update from Apple has proven more effective, alerting people via a notification on their iPhone if they have been moving with a foreign AirTag. This development, which has already resulted in the arrests of multiple stalkers, allows people to discover any devices that may be tracking their location and turn them over to the police. And in a move that goes against its usual hesitancy to collaborate with other software platforms, Apple has also built an app for Android users to provide the same service. The Android app has failed to gain significant traction, however, with data from Google Play suggesting it has only been downloaded by around 100,000 users. With over three billion active Android devices in existence, more can be done to promote the Android app and raise awareness of the issue it helps protect against.

Although these changes to AirTags have been well-received, some are questioning why they were not included from the start. Although Apple clearly stated when AirTags were launched that its products were meant to track items and not people, some argue that they should have had more safety features included from the beginning to ensure they could not be used for stalking victims.

There are currently only two plaintiffs in the San Francisco lawsuit against Apple, but it has been filed as a class-action which gives it the potential to become more than just a headache for the tech giant. But regardless of the result, the popularity of AirTags looks set to continue. With that in mind, it is important that people are aware of the trackers and their potential for misuse, and understand how to preserve their privacy and protect themselves from the risks.

With Apple’s recent software updates making a difference, it may be wise for Android users to download the app and monitor their own risk. Anyone who discovers their location is being tracked should immediately inform the relevant authorities. With the task of protecting ourselves against privacy and security threats becoming an ever more complex business, it pays to ensure you remain on top of new digital developments and their implications.

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