How AirTags Are Being Used to Stalk People and Steal Cars

Apple’s AirTags are small keyring-sized discs that you can attach to your bag or keys to help find them if they go missing. This useful technology, however, is ripe for abuse. Here’s why AirTags have been making the headlines for the wrong reasons.
Update: The same day we published this, Apple announced changes aimed at making AirTags easier to detect and deterring criminals.

What’s the Problem With AirTags?

Though AirTags were introduced by Apple in 2020, the technology isn’t a new innovation. A company called Tile released small battery-powered tracking devices called “tiles” in 2015 which used the same basic premise. They work almost identically to an AirTag, allowing a user to detect an item by proximity (30 meters or 100 ft over Bluetooth 4.0) and connecting to the wider “crowd GPS” network.

When a user with the Tile app comes into contact with one of the trackers, an update is sent anonymously to the owner indicating the general location of the item. The problem with this approach is that it required users to already use the Tile app to work, so its utility is limited to populous areas with lots of Tile users.

Apple’s AirTags work almost identically. You can use your iPhone to detect an AirTag at a distance of around 100 meters (or 300 ft) thanks to the use of ultra-wideband Bluetooth and Apple’s U1 chip on newer smartphones. Each AirTag can be detected by other iPhones running iOS 14.5 or later, sending the owner an anonymous update of where the item was last seen when it comes into range.

Since AirTags piggyback the existing network of iPhones, they are far more useful than Tile’s implementation of the same concept. Users no longer need to run an app or use a third-party service to play a part in the wider “crowd GPS” network. This means there are many more chances for your AirTag to be picked up by an iPhone and have its location recorded.

This is the reason you should probably buy an AirTag over a Tile if you use an iPhone and want to keep track of your personal belongings. It’s also the reason that AirTags are seen as a much greater privacy risk than any tracker that came before.

How AirTags Are Being Used by Stalkers

Since AirTags are small, they can easily be slipped inside of a bag or a pocket without being noticed. The AirTag can then be tracked using the wider “crowd GPS” network when out of range or using an iPhone that’s close enough to use local tracking.

AirTags have a speaker on-board that allows the owner to emit a sound, but this speaker is also used as a privacy safeguard. If the tracker is away from its owner for a set amount of time, it will chirp repeatedly until it is found or disabled. When AirTags first launched, this window was three days. Apple has since updated the window to between 8 and 24 hours.

Another safeguard delivers an “AirTag Found Moving With You” message to iPhone users if an AirTag they do not own appears to be tracking them. They can then tap on this notification which opens Apple’s Find My app, where they can tap “Play Sound” and attempt to locate the AirTag.

There have been a few high-profile examples of AirTags being used to stalk people already. A model in New York had an AirTag slipped into her coat pocket which tracked her movements for five hours before she noticed an alert on her iPhone. Another woman was tracked from a theater to her home where she noticed an unknown vehicle parked outside after receiving the alert. The vehicle left as she approached.

In another incident, a Connecticut man was charged with first-degree stalking after hiding an AirTag inside a vehicle following a domestic dispute. This underlines the severity of tracking a person against their will in a legal context. AirTags may make it easier than ever, but the law is the same whether you’re using a sophisticated battery-powered GPS connected to a SIM card or a $30 coin-sized AirTag.
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