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There's a new university study trying to understand how bad the AirTag problem is

Find My Precision Finding Airtag Hero
Find My Precision Finding Airtag Hero (Image credit: Christine Romero-Chan / iMore)

What you need to know

  • A new study aims to help understand how bad the AirTag stalking issue is.
  • The new study will use AdGuard, an Android app that can identify AirTags while running in the background.
  • Apple's own AirTag-locating Android app doesn't run in the background and is almost useless because of that fact.

We've heard so many stories of AirTags being misused to stalk people and steal cars that it's difficult to remember them all. But there's a theory that we're only hearing about the tip of the iceberg and one German university has set out to find out just how bad things could be.

Alexander Heinrich, a researcher and Ph.D. student at Germany's Technical University of Darmstadt's Secure Mobile Networking Lab is one of the people behind AirGuard, an Android app that allows people to locate misused AirTag trackers. According to a CNET report, they plan to use that app to figure out just how many AirTags are out there, doing things they were never intended to do.

How does it intend to do that? AirGuard can run in the background, unlike Apple's own AirTag-finding app. If its users opt into the study, the app will allow its creators to collect anonymous data in an effort to build a more real picture of how bad the stalking problem is.

AirGuard users can opt into the study, which would enable Heinrich and his colleagues to collect anonymized data untraceable to individuals. Information collected includes the signal strength of discovered AirTags, the number of notifications sent to the user and the dates and times pegged to those alerts.

The study sounds like a solid one and it once again begs the question — why doesn't Apple's own app offer background device locating?

While AirTag might be the best iPhone item tracker around, it's almost too good and despite Apple's efforts to help make them as safe as possible there is no denying it's in the middle of a PR storm right now. The outcome of this new study seems unlikely to help.

Oliver Haslam
Oliver Haslam

Oliver Haslam has written about Apple and the wider technology business for more than a decade with bylines on How-To Geek, PC Mag, iDownloadBlog, and many more. He has also been published in print for Macworld, including cover stories. At iMore, Oliver is involved in daily news coverage and, not being short of opinions, has been known to 'explain' those thoughts in more detail, too.

Having grown up using PCs and spending far too much money on graphics card and flashy RAM, Oliver switched to the Mac with a G5 iMac and hasn't looked back. Since then he's seen the growth of the smartphone world, backed by iPhone, and new product categories come and go. Current expertise includes iOS, macOS, streaming services, and pretty much anything that has a battery or plugs into a wall. Oliver also covers mobile gaming for iMore, with Apple Arcade a particular focus. He's been gaming since the Atari 2600 days and still struggles to comprehend the fact he can play console quality titles on his pocket computer.

2 Comments
  • Honest question. Do Tiles have the same problem? What makes AirTags unique? Just that they are an Apple product vs third party?
  • Yes, Tile, Chipolo, Samsung Tags, Trakr.....all have the same potential. The probable real world issue with AirTags is the popularity of iPhones. Every iPhone is a relay point for AirTags. Only people who use, or have installed, the Tile (or any others) is a relay point for Tile. If I plant a Tile on someone, it has to be seen by other Tile users to be tracked. Just not as many of them as iPhone users. So AirTags work better, both for what they are designed for, and consequently for what they aren't designed for. Note that none of the other options have addressed the issue at all, AFAIK. Certainly if I install a Tile app, I can see if there are Tiles around me, but that could be the guy in the next booth, or the Uber driver. If I get home and I find a Tile near me, that could be a problem. I'd have to do this with every tracker option though, if I have a reason to be concerned. Not sure what the study is going to prove, or discover. Finding out how many AirTags are out there doesn't really tell you how many are being used for nefarious, as opposed to legitimate purposes. You'll find all those attached to peoples keys in their pockets and bags on their shoulders. The potential problem ones are those, not connected to their owners, actively being sought (tracked) and apparently travelling with some other individual. Note these BT based trackers are not the only way to do this, and aren't even the best. There are readily available trackers that use GPS to locate themselves, and LTE to provide that data back to the owner. That's totally independent of any requirement to be seen by any particular phone or app.