What are AirTags?
In April 2021, Apple unveiled the AirTag, a small circular tag (1.26 inches in diameter with a weight of just 0.39 ounces, slightly larger than a quarter) that is designed to be attached to items like keys and wallets to allow these accessories to be tracked using Bluetooth location tracking via Apple devices in the Find My app. A single AirTag is priced at $29, and a package of four AirTags can be purchased for $99. If you order them directly from Apple, you can have the AirTag engraved with letters or an emoji for free.
AirTags use a replaceable CR2032 battery that is designed to last about a year before it needs to be replaced. The small size of an AirTag makes it easy to place in just about anything you want to track – keys, wallet, purse, backpack, etc. Of course, it can be placed in an automobile or truck as well to track where that vehicle is located. The tracking capabilities of AirTags has provided some benefits, but also privacy drawbacks as well, as AirTags (placed surreptitiously in purses, bags or somewhere on a motor vehicle) have often been used by thieves and stalkers to track the location of their victims.
AirTags have been useful in recovering stolen items. Here are two examples:
- An Australian photographer recently recovered $7,000 worth of items (wallet, camera, laptop, and GoPro) stolen from his car in the parking lot of his hotel. The items were found in a room in the hotel he was staying in.
- The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department said an AirTag helped investigators track down a serial thief. The alleged thief stole a backpack that had an Apple Airtag attached to it. Investigators tracked it to southeast Charlotte and identified the alleged thief, who jumped into a car and sped off. However, because he still had the backpack with him, law enforcement was able to track his location and arrest him.
That’s what AirTags are designed for – to help people recover their lost or stolen items – and there are numerous cases of people who have been able to utilize their AirTags to do just that.
Unfortunately, there have also been numerous cases where AirTags have been used for auto theft, stalking or other crimes. The small size of the AirTag makes them easy to hide within a motor vehicle and difficult to find – even if you’re looking for it.
Here are a couple of examples where AirTags have been allegedly used to commit crimes:
- A Miami-Dade police officer was recently accused of hiding Apple AirTag devices in his ex-girlfriend’s car to stalk her. According to arrest records, the stalking began on March 20, hours after his ex-girlfriend broke up with him and moved out of their home. The report states the victim heard a sound coming from her vehicle she recognized as an Apple AirTag device. She parked at a friend’s house (without his knowing) and later confirmed that he had parked across from her car. He later admitted putting an AirTag beneath a floor mat in the trunk of her car and the victim later detected the presence of another AirTag but couldn’t find it. Investigators eventually discovered an AirTag device attached to her vehicle’s undercarriage, concealed with heavy-duty tape.
- In Canada, a local police department said that it had investigated five incidents of thieves placing AirTags on “high-end vehicles so they can later locate and steal them.”
Chris Swecker, the former assistant director of the FBI, says AirTags are similar to devices that private investigators used for years, but because of Apple’s popularity many more people will now have access to this type of technology.
“It’s a perfect vehicle for stalkers and a perfect vehicle for people who want to spy on someone and violate their privacy in so many ways,” he said.
Some instances of tracking with AirTags have had tragic results.
An Indianapolis woman was accused of using an AirTag to track down her boyfriend and running him over multiple times with her car because she believed he was being unfaithful. A probable cause affidavit alleged that she told a witness that her boyfriend had been cheating on her. She told the person that she used GPS and an AirTag to track him to the bar where she ran him over. He died of his injuries.
In another case, a man, who police say was tracking a woman with a GPS device on her van, was charged with first degree murder after she was found shot and stabbed.
What Has Apple Done to Address the Privacy and Safety Concerns?
Tracking: As Apple noted in this recent update, they’ve been “actively working with law enforcement on all AirTag-related requests we’ve received” and they’ve been able to use the unique serial number of AirTags (each associated with an Apple ID) to “trace an AirTag back to the perpetrator, who was then apprehended and charged”.
Privacy Warning: Apple has also added a privacy warning to the AirTag setup to warn people that “using AirTag to track people without consent is a crime in many regions around the world, that AirTag is designed to be detected by victims, and that law enforcement can request identifying information about the owner of the AirTag.”
Beeping Notification: An AirTag away from its owner for eight to 24 hours will play a sound to alert you to its presence, letting you know if someone has illicitly stuck an AirTag in your belongings. Of course, a lot could happen over that time to put you at risk.
Perpetrators also sometimes either wrap the AirTag to muffle the sound it makes or disable the speaker altogether to make it a silent tracker. And it won’t make a sound if it’s in range of its owner – which could mean you’ve already been tracked by its owner to your current location. Apple hasn’t officially released the exact range for the AirTags, but the general consensus is that the range is approximately 800 foot. The reason for this is based on the widely accepted assumption that Airtags use Bluetooth 5.0 technology.
Notification Message: As this alert discusses, Apple has also provided an update to provide a specific message to let people know when an unknown AirTag is near them, with a prompt to select the “Find My” app, which displays a map of where the AirTag has been observed with you.
Locating an AirTag: You can also use “Find My” to play a sound from the AirTag that will hopefully enable you to locate it. If you’re able to locate it, you can also disable it by taking to cover off and removing the battery.
Downsides to Protective Measures: The downsides to the protective measures implemented by Apple are that they also enable people who are stealing your possessions to do the same thing – know when they’re being tracked by your AirTag, locate it and disable it. Then, your possessions may be gone for good.
What Can You Do to Protect Yourself?
Don’t Panic: Not all instances of AirTag tracking are malicious. You could be in a public place where the message could be an innocent indicator of being around others carrying an AirTag. Or it could be an AirTag of a friend or family member where you are (e.g., you borrow their car, and they use it to track their own car). In some instances, the AirTag could be legitimately lost – in which case, you can use your Find My notification to provide you information to enable you to return it.
Get to Safety: However, if you have an iPhone, iPad or iPod touch, you’re not in a public place (and unlikely to be around the AirTag of a “friendly”) AND you get a message that there is an unknown AirTag near you, don’t take chances. Get to a safe place as quickly as possible – such as a police station (if possible) or a public place (if not). Don’t leave your vehicle to locate the AirTag when you’re not in a safe place. If the AirTag has been observed with you in a sensitive location (such as your home or a friend’s home), you’ll want to report that to law enforcement ASAP.
Be Aware of Unfamiliar Beeping: If the notification message doesn’t timely warn you about the presence of an AirTag, beeping from the AirTag may do so. Get to safety in that instance as well, assuming you’re not already in public or can explain it as belonging to a friend or family member.
Write Down Information About the AirTag Before Disabling It: If you can locate the AirTag that is tracking you, capture the information you learn about the AirTag before disabling it, either by writing it down or (even better) taking a screen shot. You’ll need to provide that information to law enforcement to identify who has been tracking you.
If you have any Android, download this app: It’s not just Apple users who can be surreptitiously tracked, Android users can be as well. If you’re an Android user, download the app Tracker Direct (available here from the Google Play Store), which can find any unfamiliar AirTags within your Bluetooth range.
Note: you’ll have to manually scan the area with it.
Keep Your OS Up to Date: As Apple (and Android) continue to apply updates to protect users, you’ll want to make sure to take advantage of those, so you should apply OS updates when they are available to do so.
Apple AirTags provide value in helping to protect your possessions from being lost or stolen, but there is a downside to the use of them. Even if you don’t use them, your privacy and safety can be impacted by them. It’s important to stay informed about the risks associated with AirTags so that you can adapt as needed to protect yourself and your loved ones.