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AirTags are being used to track people and cars. Here’s what is being done about it

  • By Michael Levitt/NPR
In this illustration photographed in La Habra, Calif., the AirTag tracking device is introduced during a virtual event held to announce new Apple products, Tuesday, April 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

 Jae C. Hong / AP

In this illustration photographed in La Habra, Calif., the AirTag tracking device is introduced during a virtual event held to announce new Apple products, Tuesday, April 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Apple’s AirTags were billed as a cheap and easy way to track everything from your keys and wallet to your backpack, but in recent months there have been a number of reports of the small button-sized device being used by stalkers and thieves to track people.

Last December, Canadian law enforcement announced that AirTags were being found in luxury vehicles to later be stolen. Over recent months, numerous stories have also surfaced on across social media of people finding AirTags hidden in their belongings.

In response, Apple issued a statement last week saying it was working with law enforcement on all requests and planned to roll out additional software updates to help iPhone users become more aware of and locate unknown AirTags that were following them.

“Based on our knowledge and on discussions with law enforcement, incidents of AirTag misuse are rare; however, each instance is one too many,” it said.

Old problem, new tech

The idea behind AirTags is not revolutionary, but there are some notable differences in the technology from older tracking devices.

AirTags do not have a built-in GPS system and instead piggyback off the location data of nearby Apple devices by emitting a continuous Bluetooth signal, which is then viewable by the tag’s owner.

Eva Galperin is the director of cybersecurity at the Electronic Frontier Foundation and said she was alarmed even before the product’s launch last spring.

“I was concerned ahead of their release as soon as I figured out how they worked. I was concerned very shortly after they were released when I started seeing reports of stalking and being contacted by people who were being stalked using these devices,” she told NPR.

This isn’t the first time a new device or technology has been used for malicious purposes, said Renee Williams, the executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime.

“As technology becomes more sophisticated and advanced, as wonderful as that is for society, unfortunately, it also becomes much easier to misuse and abuse,” she told NPR. “I wouldn’t say that we’ve necessarily seen an uptick with the use of AirTags any more or less than any cutting edge technology.”

Williams said that what was rare was a technology company taking the issue seriously and moving to address it.

“[Apple is] not only listening to the field, but actively reaching out at times to do safety checks. That in and of itself might sound like a very small step, but it’s rare,” she said.

Still, Galperin thinks that Apple should have done more to protect people ahead of time.

“The mitigations that Apple had in place at the time that the AirTag came out were woefully insufficient,” Galperin said.

“I think that Apple has been very careful and responsive after putting the product out and introducing new mitigations. But the fact that they chose to bring the product to market in the state that it was in last year, is shameful.”

How to know if an AirTag is following you

For Apple iPhone users, there are some safeguards in place, but for others the options are more limited.

Currently, iPhone users will receive a notification if an AirTag is separated from its owner and is moving with them over time — if they have an iPhone 11 or later running on iOS 14.5 or later, and they have the correct settings on.

Android users cannot receive these notifications automatically, but Apple has released an application called “Tracker Detect” that will allow them to scan for an unknown AirTag nearby. However, Tracker Detect currently only operates when the app is open.

Anyone who is alerted to the presence of an unknown AirTag, either through Apple’s notification system or by using Tracker Detect, can trigger an audible chime to help them locate the device.

AirTags will also randomly play this chime automatically when separated from the original owner.

Apple notes that receiving a notification of an unknown AirTag does not necessarily mean that you are being followed, as the device and the item it’s attached to may genuinely be lost.

However, if you do fear you are being maliciously tracked, AirTags can be deactivated by removing the battery. Doing so stops it from updating its current location, but also alerts the device’s owner. Moreover, some law enforcement agencies have pointed out that removing the AirTag’s battery could potentially contaminate it as evidence.

What you can do if you are being maliciously tracked

There are no hard and fast rules on what you should do if you suspect you are being tracked, said Jennifer Landhuis, the director of the Stalking Prevention Awareness and Resource Center.

Apple recommends people contact local law enforcement, and Landhuis advises victims to be thoughtful about how to do so in the safest way possible.

“If the offender is monitoring the victim’s actions, and sees that the AirTag has now gone to the police station, that can escalate the situation and put a victim more in danger,” she said, suggesting that finding a public place where you can safely contact police by phone and have an officer meet you might be a safer alternative.

Landhuis also suggested people document the incident by taking screenshots, photos, and a log of notes in order to keep track of the details. But the most important thing for someone to do, she said, was to follow their instincts.

“The first thing that we always say to an individual who thinks they’re being stalked is to trust your gut,” she said. “Your instincts tell you one way or the other to follow those instincts, because their instincts are usually pretty spot on.”

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