Apple AirTags are used to track people. Can states stop it?
At first, Danielle Mathias didn’t know anything was wrong.
But after a night out in Washington, DC a few weeks ago, a strange notification popped up on her phone – warning her that someone was using Apple’s Find My app to track her location, apparently via a pair of AirPod headphones.
Mathias didn’t have AirPods on her. But after reading Twitter threads detailing similar cases, she began to suspect that someone was using another Apple product – AirTags, designed to help people track their belongings – to track her movements. Since their introduction in April 2021, AirTags have been misused by thieves, stalkers, and even murderers.
Mathias never found an AirTag. But the phone notification she received included a map of her movements over the evening, which disappeared as soon as she changed her phone settings to disable tracking. Now, a handful of state legislatures are entering the ongoing security debate with legislation designed to address loopholes in their criminal codes exposed by AirTag abuse. Lawmakers in Ohio and New Jersey have introduced bills that would criminalize unknowingly tracking people. A similar bill is circulating in Pennsylvania. But these bills would do little to help people the moment they are followed. Previous reports have revealed that at least 19 states currently have explicit laws against electronic tracking.
Apple has tried to make it harder to abuse AirTags in this way. It announced a series of security-related upgrades in February – including a message warning anyone installing an AirTag that it should only be used to track their own belongings, making alerts that an AirTag is at stronger and more visible proximity, and notifying a person sooner that an unknown AirTag or other Apple device may be traveling with them. But many of these changes only apply to iPhone users. people with Android phones should download Apple’s Tracker Detect app to receive alerts about unknown AirTags.
Asked by Grid for comment on the issue, an Apple spokesperson pointed to the company’s February statement announcing the security upgrades.
In the meantime, reports of AirTag misuse continue to pile up. “It’s incredibly anxiety-provoking,” Mathias said. “When you leave your house, when you’re even just at home, because now someone has decided to do this [I have questions like], ‘Do they know where I live?’ I don’t even know how specific AirTags are, so I’m like, ‘Do they know my apartment number?’ »
Distinguishing Digital Trackers
The bills that have popped up in state legislatures all take the same general approach — explicitly making it illegal to track someone with AirTags or similar devices.
New Jersey Democratic Congressman Paul Moriarty signed on to sponsor the New Jersey bill after seeing reports of AirTag abuse. The bill would make tracking someone using a digital device without their consent a fourth-degree felony, which is a felony and can result in an 18-month prison sentence. “These things are very effective, and they’re very inexpensive and readily available,” Moriarty said. “There are a lot of legitimate uses for it. And absolutely, it’s very convenient, but you know, like with a lot of things, there’s abuse of products and services that can be alarming.
The Ohio bill, which would “prohibit a person from knowingly installing a tracking device or application on another person’s property without the other person’s consent,” was introduced in May after a local press investigation found that people with no history of harassment or domestic violence might not be penalized for electronically tracking people.
Pennsylvania legislation, which was announced in January but has yet to be officially introduced, would prohibit Apple AirTags from being used for any purpose other than locating misplaced personal items.
In the meantime, people are already looking for ways to defeat Apple’s latest set of security measures to combat AirTag harassment.
“The biggest problem is that AirTags exist,” said Albert Fox Cahn, founder and executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP). By their very nature, he added, AirTags are tools optimized for abuse.
That’s because they’re small – just a little larger than a quarter size – and cost just $29, with a four-pack costing just $99. They can be slipped into someone’s pocket or wallet and then used to track them. And they rely on many disparate data sources to perform their tracking function. Each AirTag emits a Bluetooth signal that can also be detected by nearby devices using Apple’s “Find My” network. These devices send the AirTag’s location to Apple’s iCloud service, where the AirTag owner can track its location on their Find My app – down to a few feet, in many cases.
“These alerts, and whether it’s the audible tone or alerts on iOS devices, can be helpful in some cases, but it’s clearly not enough to prevent, you know, many types of damage that may arise,” Cahn said.
Several videos on YouTube feature instructions for users to modify their AirTags so they don’t make noise, making it harder to spot targets. Cahn also noted TikTok videos that tout AirTags as a way to track someone down to see if they’re cheating.
“Here is a huge corporation profiting from this easily abused device and then outsourcing the cost to local police departments,” he added. “Obviously there are other trackers on the market that can be abused as well. But you know, this one is cheap and it works really well globally.
Mathias said she wants Apple to try to research a history of abuse before selling them AirTags, and let victims keep information about the device used to track them, such as a map showing where a device started. follow them or logged in for the first time with their phone, rather than having it disappear once access is disabled.
In the meantime, she is still dealing with fears over her apparent contact with an AirTag stalker.
“The last few weeks since it happened, it’s just been kind of high anxiety and hyper-vigilance,” she said. “But also, I frantically look through my stuff every chance I get. [to find the AirTag].”
Thanks to Dave Tepps for writing this article.