Apple’s AirTag technology, the company’s new device that helps people find lost items, could also enable stalkers to keep an eye on their victims, experts warn.
The small, round label is impressively precise and relatively easy to use – and potentially fraudulent. Experts say the device could make stalking easier and empower domestic abusers. Geoffrey Fowler, tech columnist for the Washington Post, tested the tags, which can be attached to a keychain, iPhone, or other device, or simply slipped into a person’s purse or wallet. The trackers connect to the AirTag owner’s iPhone to share their location.
“It’s super handy when you might lose keys in the park and need to find them,” Fowler told CBSN’s Lana Zak. “But the problem is, someone could put one of these in your pocket, or in your car, or some other property of yours, without you knowing.”
“Terribly good” at tracking
AirTags can be set up to send alerts to prevent unwanted follow-up. For example, if an AirTag is disconnected from its owner’s iPhone for more than three days, it will beep. However, critics say these and other built-in safeguards are insufficient to protect potential victims from stalking.
Fowler said a colleague put an AirTag in Fowler’s pocket with his permission and followed it for a week.
“It was terribly good at it,” Fowler told CBSN. “When I was riding my bike around town, it could inform him of my whereabouts every few minutes.”
The device even revealed Fowler’s home address to his colleague, raising privacy concerns. “So it’s a double-edged sword with this type of technology and I think we need to talk more about it,” said Fowler.
“Massive new surveillance network”
Similar Bluetooth-based tracking devices are already on the market, including a product from technology company Tile. However, given the technology company’s already long reach, Apple’s device can reach a lot more people.
“I think the reason why … people like me sounding the alarm about AirTags is that when Apple gets involved, we’re talking about a whole different gamut,” said Fowler. “These use literally every iPhone out there – a billion different devices. And that means that Apple has suddenly created a huge new surveillance network available to people.”
And at just $ 30 per pop, they’re relatively cheap and easy to use.
“So it’s a really effective technology to potentially stalk, unfortunately,” said Fowler.
Another protection built into the design of the AirTag is the “AirTag Found Moving With You” warning. An AirTag near an unpaired iPhone triggers an “AirTag Detected” message on that person’s phone, letting them know that a day has traveled with them.
Fowler said he received such a warning but it didn’t help him find the AirTag that was chasing him. It also won’t work with Android phones or Apple devices that aren’t running iOS 14.5 or higher.
“Honestly, Apple has to do more,” he said.
According to Fowler, an industry-wide effort is needed to implement protections for tracking devices.
“I can see the appeal, but it’s important to look at these safety concerns from a much broader societal perspective,” he said.