Apple AirTags: What you need to know about tracking danger

Apple’s AirTags are getting a lot of attention, not entirely positive. These quarter-sized Bluetooth trackers are designed to be attached to belongings like luggage, backpacks, and wallets to help users find those items if they go missing.

But police have confirmed cases of stalkers using AirTags to track victims and thieves using AirTags to try to tor steal vehicles. People have reported feeling puzzled after receive alerts suggesting they are being tracked by unknown AirTags, and some have found mysterious AirTags stuck to their cars. Last week, two women filed a lawsuit against Apple alleging that AirTags are a “dangerous product” that “has become the weapon of choice for harassers and abusers.”

“I was worried before they were released as soon as I found out how they worked,” Eva Galperin, director of cybersecurity at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told NPR at the beginning of this year. “I became concerned shortly after they were released when I started seeing reports of harassment and that people who were being harassed using these devices contacted me.”

In February, Apple condemned the criminal use of AirTags and the company promised to launch more updates and product advances in 2022 that would “help protect against further unwanted tracking.” So far, Apple has released firmware updates to include new privacy warnings when signing up, alert users earlier about tracking unknown AirTags, and adjust the sound AirTags make.

Here’s what you need to know, and what it could mean if you get an alert suggesting you’re being tracked.

How does an AirTag work?

Like many tech companies, Apple uses Bluetooth wireless technology in nearly all of its products, from iPhones to Apple Watches to MacBooks and more. Bluetooth signals, which are wavelengths that connect devices within a short range, allow us to enjoy wireless headphones like AirPods or AirDrop photos or files to another user who has their receiving settings turned on. They too enable the Find My app you can use when your Apple items are lost.

AirTags aren’t exactly GPS trackers, but each one sends your location to every Apple device it’s registered to. AirTags work by privately exchanging encrypted signals with other Apple devices in your immediate vicinity, creating a virtual network that makes up for the fact that Bluetooth signals typically don’t travel further than about 30 feet.

Let’s say you’re in Toronto, but your bag, unfortunately, is at the Cincinnati airport. If there are other Internet-connected Apple devices near the AirTag you place in your bag, those devices will anonymously pick up the AirTag’s Bluetooth signals and transmit them to your phone so you know where your bag is.

AirTags feature “precision search,” according to Apple.

AirTags pair with your personal devices, so you’ll probably know if one isn’t yours.

For iOS users running recent software, Apple updated the AirTags system to keep users more secure. When you buy an AirTag for your belongings and pair it with your iPhone, it’s permanently associated with your Apple ID. This means it doesn’t even show up to others in your family sharing group, and if you ever borrow someone else’s AirTag, you’ll first have to remove their ID before you can use it.

Due to this personalized identification, users also receive alerts if an AirTag in their proximity is not theirs. This alert says “AirTag found moving with you” and offers a warning: “The owner can see the location of this AirTag.”

This has caused many people to fear that they are being harassed or tracked without their consent.

The popup warning doesn’t always mean you’re being tracked…

Apple has noted that just because you get this alert doesn’t automatically mean you’re being tracked. The popup can appear on a person’s phone if an AirTag owner and their iPhone are separated by a certain distance, or if someone loses their AirTag. Then an alert appears on the phones of people nearby..

“People may receive unwanted tracking alerts for benign reasons, such as when they borrow someone’s keys with an AirTag attached, or when they’re traveling in a car with a family member’s AirPods inside,” Apple said in his February statement.

If an AirTag is separated from its owner and moves with you, you will receive an alert that will allow you to play a sound to find it and look up information about it.
If an AirTag is separated from its owner and moves with you, you will receive an alert that will allow you to play a sound to find it and look up information about it.

…but here’s how to check and what to do if you find one.

If you receive an alert about an unknown AirTag nearby, you can follow the instructions to play a sound on the AirTag to help you locate it. And if you find an unwanted AirTag in or on your belongings, You can take out the battery. This stops location tracking, but also alerts the owner of the AirTag. Because of this, NPR reported, some law enforcement agencies have advised against removing the battery in case it contaminates potential evidence of something sinister.

apple recommended follow the steps below if you discover a potentially malicious AirTag as it simply disables Find My and turns off Bluetooth or Location Services on your iPhone will not prevent the owner of the suspected AirTag sees its location.

  1. If you’ve found an AirTag, hold the top of your iPhone or NFC-enabled smartphone near the white side of the AirTag until a notification appears.

  2. Tap the notification. This opens a website that provides information about the AirTag, including its serial number and the last four digits of the phone number of the person who registered it. This can help you identify the owner, if you know him. You may want to take a screenshot to make sure you can document the information.

  3. If the owner marked the AirTag as lost, you may see a message with information on how to contact the owner.

From there, you can turn the device off without removing the battery. Tap on “Disable Instructions” and follow the steps. The original owner of the AirTag will no longer see its location after that and can report the device to the police if necessary.

In cases that may involve malicious intent, Apple may provide AirTag account details to police “in response to a valid law enforcement request or subpoena,” the company said. “We have successfully partnered with [law enforcement] in cases where the information we provide has been used to trace an AirTag back to the perpetrator, who was later apprehended and charged.”

If the AirTag issue raises privacy concerns in general, it might be a good idea to check who can track you via location services on your phone. Go to your Settings and click on Privacy. Look for “Location Services.” There you will see a list of apps that currently have access to your location. You can adjust the tracking permissions or remove the apps entirely, depending on what is comfortable for you.

And if you previously shared your iPhone’s location with someone else and now you want to end it:

  1. Open the Find My app.
  2. Tap “People.”
  3. Select the person you want to stop sharing your location with.
  4. Tap “Stop sharing my location.”

In the Find My app’s “Me” menu, you can also turn off sharing of your location in general.

If you want to double check which devices are connected to your iPhone, go to “Bluetooth” in Settings and view each device that has been paired with your phone. This could include everything from AirPods to AirTags to car stereo systems.

If you are an Android user, you will see a Bluetooth icon at the top of your screen. Go to Settings and see “Connected devices”.

Can I detect AirTags with an Android?

Since AirTags use the Apple-specific U1 chip, the devices don’t work as well for non-Apple products. The first problem Android users will encounter is that only Apple users can register an AirTag as their own through the Find My app. Android users will also not be able to find their AirTags on a map.

So how can they detect AirTags? Apple has released an app for Android users called tracker detection which allows you to manually search for AirTags that are not yours and that could be tracking you. This will show AirTags that are not in the Bluetooth range of your device, depending on life wire. The app also allows users to play a sound on any tracking device it detects for more than 10 minutes, so you can find it.

So are AirTags safe?

Yes and no, an expert told us.

“There are some good and bad things with Apple AirTags,” he said. Dr. Stavros Shiales, a cybersecurity expert at the University of Portsmouth. Shiales noted that AirTags actually help him locate lost items. But it cautions against using Bluetooth when you don’t need it, and recommends keeping all software on your Bluetooth-enabled devices up to date.

Shiales said AirTags are one more privacy concern to think about.

“Apple knows everything you have,” he said. Just as it’s possible to profile an influencer’s daily habits based on what they reveal on social media, someone might profile you based on what an AirTag might reveal. For example, if the device stayed in their car, an AirTag owner could see the locations they visit on a daily basis.

“If you have this device continuously with you, in your car, I can profile it,” Shiales said.

Need help? In the US, call 1-866-331-9474 or text “loveis” to 22522 for the National Dating Abuse Helpline.

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