AirTags allows you to track nearby or missing items with Apple̵
AirTags and the risk of abuse
AirTags are small keychain-sized item trackers designed to locate everything from a handbag to a bicycle, wherever it is in the world. Apple’s solution works almost identically to competitors like Tile, using low-energy Bluetooth signatures to effectively crowdsource geolocation for your missing gadgets.
This allows you to attach a label to a valuable item in the hopes of finding it if it ever goes missing. The tag emits a Bluetooth signature that passing iPhones can detect and relay without disclosing any information about either party. You can then use Apple’s Find My app on an iPhone, iPad, or Mac (or the web version at iCloud.com) to see where one of your AirTags was last found.
If you enable Lost Mode, you can choose to share your phone number with anyone who happens to find your item and scan the AirTag. Of course, the tag will also continue to relay its information as long as it has power and is within range of Apple devices that can detect it.
Unlike competing services, Apple has a few extra tricks up its sleeve. AirTags have user-replaceable CR2032 batteries, which last about a year and cost very little to replace. The trackers also leverage Apple’s vast network of existing devices, with hundreds of millions of iPhones, iPads, and Macs looking for AirTags.
Most importantly, Apple has built in so-called “anti-stalker” measures to prevent bad actors from improperly using AirTags to track down people. Remember: AirTags are about the size of a large coin, so hiding them in a purse or pocket is a major concern.
Your iPhone will alert you to the presence of AirTags nearby
An iPhone or iPad is required for the best anti-stalking technology available to Apple. This technology came with the release of iOS and iPadOS 14.5, and it works by notifying you when your device detects AirTags moving with you. When this happens, you will receive a notification on your phone to let you know.
However, exceptions to this rule may apply if:
- the AirTag is yours and is linked to your Apple ID.
- the AirTag is associated with an iPhone or Apple ID nearby that happens to be traveling with you.
For example, if you are on a train and someone has an AirTag on their bag, but it is also within range of that AirTag, you will not receive the “AirTag Found Moving With You” alert. This isn’t foolproof and could result in some false positives (for example, if a fellow passenger’s iPhone runs out of power), but it’s a good start.
If you cannot find the AirTag, it will make a sound after a short while to help you locate it. You can use any NFC-compatible smartphone, even an Android phone, to scan an AirTag in your possession. Doing so will take you to an Apple webpage with instructions on how to turn off the AirTag by removing the battery. You also have access to the serial number (printed on the device).
If someone scans a mysterious AirTag, they won’t be able to see identifying information about its owner, but reporting such an incident to the authorities can have real ramifications for any stalkers. The serial number is associated with an Apple ID and Apple will comply with (legitimate) requests from authorities to provide the identity of anyone who improperly uses AirTags to track someone against their will.
It’s also worth noting that it’s also impossible to reuse an AirTag you’ve found by pairing it with your own iPhone. A feature called Pair Lock offers similar functionality to Activation Lock on an iPhone, preventing users from pairing the AirTag without the owner disconnecting it from their own Apple ID first.
What if you don’t own an iPhone?
If a potential victim does not have an Apple device, they will not be able to use the background processes built into iOS 14.5 that are designed to locate rogue AirTags. Fortunately, Android and non-smartphone users are not completely out of luck.
If an AirTag is not with its owner for more than three days, it will emit a sound in the hope that someone will find it. This duration is determined by Apple and can be changed in the future via a wireless update. It’s not a perfect solution as someone can be tracked for days without knowing (unless they have an iPhone or iPad that can detect AirTags).
Despite this flaw, it is a solution that speaks volumes about the types of items Apple wants to use AirTags with – those items that you normally find in your home or person, or interact with regularly.
If you happen to find a random AirTag, you can scan it with any NFC-compatible smartphone or tablet to find out more about it, including whether the owner marked it as lost and how to disable it if you suspect foul play.
Powered by the “Find My” network
The technology on which Apple’s AirTag is built is nothing new or special. Energy-efficient Bluetooth beacons have been around for years, but what brings Apple’s solution to the table is a huge network of devices actively looking for it.
Considering the hundreds of millions of Apple devices in the wild, it’s hard to recommend competing devices if you’re using an iPhone. This visibility also introduces a new form of privacy risk, which requires Apple to take steps to prevent and prevent abuse.