If you follow the tech sphere at all, you may have noticed that AirTags have been getting increasingly bad press lately from accounts of people discovering rogue AirTags in places they ought not to be. It sounds scary and shocking to hear these tales of people getting tracked or cars being stolen all because some nefarious people abused AirTags to achieve some truly awful deeds.
Stories like these likely caused Apple to announce the new upcoming improvements to AirTags and the Find My app to help further prevent the misuse of AirTags as a stalking device. Notice how I used the word further; that's because Apple had already been doing a lot — more than other companies — to prevent this kind of nonsense in the first place.
So why is it that AirTags seem to get so much bad press? Well, it's an unfortunate side effect of "The Apple Effect."
The negative consequences of "The Apple Effect."
Apple has the privilege and the curse of being one of the most recognizable brands and richest companies in the world, which means anytime it launches a product, people take notice. Whether it's the newest iPhone, a pair of AirPods, or yes, a tracker like AirTags, all of a sudden, people start to pay attention.
Other trackers have existed well before AirTags made their appearance on the market in the Spring of 2021, yet how often did you hear about trackers being used to stalk people or steal things then? I would guess, a lot less. Now, that doesn't mean these instances didn't happen, but because AirTags are so visible in the cultural zeitgeist right now, we tend to gravitate towards the headlines that call them out.
Now, how we got here is only part of the story; the other part is where do we go next? All these horrible stories about AirTags put Apple in a peculiar position. It would be very easy for Apple to bring up its track record on privacy issues in the past and deflect the negative stories. Or, Apple could easily point to companies like Tile, who have been making trackers for a long time, some without any anti-stalking features whatsoever (earlier models), and nobody seems to have batted an eye. The good news for everyone is Apple isn't doing this. Instead, it appears to be taken the opportunity to improve Airtags to prevent abuse.
Using an AirTag to stalk someone isn't smart
Aside from being completely illegal and creepy as hell, using an AirTag to stalk someone is fairly stupid. From day one, Apple put in safeguards to protect people from stalking measures. I'm not just talking about Find My notifying you when it notices an unknown AirTag (more on that in a bit), but it starts at the beginning.
To set up an AirTag, you need to tie it to an Apple ID, meaning to some degree, an AirTag is always traceable to somebody. Plus, each Airtag has a unique serial number, so you can't easily try to pawn off your Airtag onto someone else if someone starts asking questions. In fact, in no uncertain terms, Apple told us they would provide account details "in response to a subpoena or valid request from law enforcement." Apple even went as far as to say that the company has already cooperated with officials to trace an AirTag back to someone. That's not all Apple is doing about the AirTag stalking issue. The biggest anti-stalking feature of AirTags is also getting a fairly significant upgrade.
Since launch, if your iPhone detected an unknown AirTag that stuck around with you for some time, it would notify you that an unknown device was detected. It's not just AirTags that will do this, if your friend accidentally left their AirPods in your car and you drive around, after a while, your iPhone would let you know. Apple has clarified that you will indeed see a notification that specifically says "AirTag Found Moving With You" if an unknown AirTag is following you. Plus, Apple is going to update the Precision Finding feature in Find My to help you locate the exact location of an unknown AirTag, should you discover there is one moving with you.
On top of all that, Apple has also committed to upgrading how it notifies users. Alerting people sooner when unwanted items follow them around is just one way Apple is trying to improve Airtag alerts.
There are other trackers out there that don't have nearly as robust anti-stalking features as AirTags, and choosing to use an AirTag to perpetrate unlawfully, and frankly, disgusting acts is the stupidest choice someone can make. Like a child who just got pushed off the swing by the schoolyard bully, AirTags will tell on you, and Apple will rat you out to the fuzz.
Bad actors will always exist, but these are conversations we need to be having
Unfortunately, we live in an unjust world, and as long as AirTags exist — and other trackers — some bad people will attempt to abuse them. And, since technology often is faster than legislation, we are left in this current situation where law enforcement, in many cases, is ill-equipped to deal with this type of stalking. From dealing with the technology itself to properly convicting or bringing appropriate charges for crimes being committed using location-based technology like an AirTag, this technology is still new enough to be going through growing pains.
I love to see Apple being proactive and doing its best to come up with solutions to make its products safer and less prone to do harm. It's essential to see a big company like Apple taking such a firm stance on these issues, and while it's not all on Apple to fix the problem, helping raise awareness is an integral part of the process.
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Luke Filipowicz has been a writer at iMore, covering Apple for nearly a decade now. He writes a lot about Apple Watch and iPad but covers the iPhone and Mac as well. He often describes himself as an "Apple user on a budget" and firmly believes that great technology can be affordable if you know where to look. Luke also heads up the iMore Show — a weekly podcast focusing on Apple news, rumors, and products but likes to have some fun along the way.
Luke knows he spends more time on Twitter than he probably should, so feel free to follow him or give him a shout on social media @LukeFilipowicz.
Well said, Luke! I really appreciate this article!
How soon to notify someone of a foreign AirTag moving with them is a tough question. Imagine an airplane with half the folks on it with an AirTag on their keys or carry on. Every one of those Tags is foreign to everyone else on the flight, and they are all moving together. Imagine them all going off 2hrs, 3 hrs, into the flight. Depends a bit on how close an AirTag needs to be to you to count, but I bet the two next to you and the row in front an back would surely be within the scope. It's great they are doing what they are doing, but it is not as simple as 'hey, just do this'.
That’s already covered… If an AirTag is traveling with its owner, there’s no reason to alert others about it. Besides, AirTags are only “active” when they’re being tracked; that is, when someone is trying to find its location.
You are right. I didn't think that through completely. Guess the other scenario I wonder about is using a tracker to keep track of your kid's backpack. Not your kid, his/her backpack. These things get left at school and friends houses. Won't the tracker go off in the middle of the day? Or does it only alarm if it is being actively tracked? If so, doesn't that hurt the car tracking scenario? If I want to steal your car, and put an AirTag on it, I just wait until 2AM to see where it is parked. If if it doesn't announce itself until then, the tracker likely won't be found.
Honestly these are great. Already have used them for good. Just thinking about possibilities.
It seems to really crack down on airtag enabled stalking, they need to make an app available for all types of devices with full functionality. Dropping an airtag into the car of a person with no iPhone device will go undetected by that person being tracked. They have no idea they're being tracked.
Does Samsung supply a way to track for all? I mean all the huff about this is because it is Apple and they are an easy target. No one is talking about Samsung and Tile and others. I for one love my AirTags and find them useful.
Every tracker manufacturer would have to do that, and users would have to install every one of them. While a solution, I don't think that would change much.
“Bad actors will always exist”. Yes, Hollywood is full of them.
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