Privacy Concerns Over Apple AirTag Misuse

Shadine Taufik

Apple released their tracking devices, or ‘AirTags’ in April of last year, marketing them as ‘an easy way to keep track of your stuff’. Pushing consumers to attach the device to their keys and backpacks amongst other valuables, they ensure that nothing will be lost with their in-built tracking app, ‘Find My’.

The original ‘Find My’ app was launched in 2019 and allowed users to track other devices within their Apple ‘ecosystem’, including phones, laptops, and wireless earphones – as well as their connected friends’ devices. This version saw the merging of two prior functions, ‘Find My Friends’ and ‘Find My iPhone’.

Prior to the AirTags, the location data that appeared on user maps were personal devices linked through their iCloud networks, as well as the locations of friends that have consented to being tracked.

AirTags operate by sending out a Bluetooth signal that can be picked up by Apple devices detected nearby, which then sends its location to iCloud – allowing the user to see the location of the AirTag on their ‘Find My’ app.

The danger of this relatively new device lies in the fact that people are unable to consent to being tracked, as the object may be freely attached to anything – including bags, cars, and clothes. Additionally, the miniature, unimposing design of the tags makes them fairly difficult to spot.

Apple has tried to mitigate safety concerns through several updates. Perhaps the most notable is the ringing sound AirTags make when they are away from the owner for an extended period. This was initially activated at the three-day mark, though now it has been updated to random increments between 8 to 24 hours.

Additionally, Apple users are alerted when an unknown AirTag is ‘following’ them. Last month, Apple extended this safety measure to Android users, releasing the Tracker Detect app on the Google Play Store.

In the most recent development, which responded to a number of stalking horror stories, Apple updated its ‘Personal User Safety Guide’, which details how users should act in case they detect an unknown AirTag tracking their location. However, it seems that this alone is not enough to overcome the dangers that come along with the device.

User stalking stories

AirTags are undoubtedly useful when used correctly. They can be a necessary tool as a safety precaution against theft, overactive pets, or failed memory – some police departments in the US have encouraged citizens to place AirTags inconspicuously on their cars, boats, and bags to track possible perpetrators. Stolen bicycles have even been found because of this device.

However, when this technology is taken advantage of, it can be extremely harmful to unknowing victims.

In cases of dysfunctional, abusive relationships, the culpable individual can place an AirTag on individuals who try to flee. Parents can also use AirTags to track their unconsenting children.

In an interview with NBC News, American lawyer Adam Dodge, who specialises in training organisations to address online abuse, pointed out:

‘People who are engaging in unhealthy or abusive behaviour suddenly became aware of a sophisticated, inexpensive and enormously effective tool’.

In the wrong hands, AirTags are enabling abusers and criminal activity.

At £29 for a single AirTag or £99 for four, these devices are relatively cheap and powerful, making the price point easily justifiable to those who wish to track people or steal expensive goods.

People – especially women – have been sharing their experiences on social media, with one TikTok user claiming that they found an AirTag nestled behind their licence plate, and another being tracked after going to a basketball game.

Toronto police departments have also recorded five cases of attempted car theft using AirTags, wherein luxury vehicles were tracked in order to be stolen later on. This has also occurred in Austin and Detroit.

Tech-enabled stalking

Tracking devices aren’t new, Apple is far from the first company offering this type of technology. However, it is the first major tech brand that has released a product in this market, and at an affordable price. Its large reach and billions of devices in its iCloud network also make the AirTag extremely accurate.

A New York Times article explained that researchers believe the company did not create the problem itself, but merely uncovered it with its refined alert system, revealing the horrific extent of tech-enabled stalking – it was a widespread issue in the first place.

The power afforded to modern consumer devices is a double-edged sword. Long-distance communication has never been so immersive and easy, online databases are teeming with an astonishing amount of information and media, and having a supercomputer in the palm of one’s hand at all times means that one can never really be lost or out of the loop.

However, these advances, paired with malicious intent, can be extremely dangerous. The sharing culture that has emerged out of social media platforms allows ill-doers to access locations that are often visited, sensitive personal information, and even track one’s home address. Google Maps’ street-view makes this extremely simple – and many people have fallen victim to this. The Find My app has also been misused by prying friends and partners, who can access a user’s phone and share their location without them even realising.

Barring misuse of tech, there is also stalkerware, which was unethically invented for this purpose alone. There is software that enables users to see someone’s search history, files, private chats, track location, as well as record screenshots, videos, photos, and audio. This is illegal, and difficult to access. The problem mostly lies in legal, supposedly safe, surface-level consumer technology, gamed for damage.

It is important to remember that a device that connects us to the rest of the world can just as easily connect harmful individuals to us.

Although Apple did not start this problem, as the market leader, they need to ensure that more measures are taken to eliminate any privacy and safety concerns.

How to stay safe

Apple’s Personal User Safety Guide details fairly simple steps to ensure that users are not being stalked.

Firstly, users need to review who they’re sharing their location with, and only turn on location services for integral and trusted applications. On Find My, users can review friends or AirTags that have access to their location data. People can be removed, and rogue AirTags should be located. When found, the battery should be taken out, disabling the device.

The guide details:

‘If you find an AirTag after hearing it make a sound, you can use any device that has NFC, such as an iPhone or Android phone, to see if its owner marked it as lost and help return it. If you feel your safety is at risk, you can contact your local United States law enforcement who can work with Apple.’

Unfortunately, for the time being, there is not much that can be done other than these few simple measures. The problem with the technology is its complete versatility – there are not enough inbuilt safeguards to ensure proper use. Public awareness must be raised regarding this issue, as theft, kidnapping, and abuse continue to be facilitated by such innovations.

About the Author: Shadine Taufik

Shadine Taufik is a contributing Features writer with expertise in digital sociology and culture, philosophy of technology, and computational creativity.