Following a widely reported series of incidents in which the company’s AirTag Bluetooth trackers were hidden in victims’ cars (see
belongings with the intention of stalking their movements, Apple has publicly announced a series of actions it will take to combat the phenomenon.
statement, the company acknowledges “reports of bad actors attempting to misuse AirTag for malicious or criminal purposes”. While it claims such incidents are rare, and points once again to the
anti-stalking measures already built into the AirTag, it concedes that “each instance is one too many”.
Apple says it has been working with law enforcement to deal with AirTag stalking, and reveals something that may not be widely known: through the use of serial numbers and Apple ID account details, AirTags can be traced back to their owners. Apple says it will provide such details in response to a subpoena, and claims to have done so in at least one case (the use of plurals is ambiguous) which led to the perpetrator being caught and charged.
But the company says it intends to do more, and details a number of changes headed for AirTags and the Find My network.
- Apple has updated its
support articles to further explain the privacy features built into the AirTags and similar devices, and to provide resources for victims of stalking.
- As of an upcoming software update, AirTag owners will be shown a warning during setup explaining that the device should not be used for stalking, that such behaviour may be illegal, and that (as explained above) Apple can and will help law enforcement to catch stalkers.
- In the same update, “Unknown Accessory Detected” alerts will become more informative, specifying when the accessory is a set of AirPods.
Further changes are coming “later this year”.
- When you’re alerted to an unknown tracker, you’ll be able to use Precision Finding to work out where exactly it is (if you’ve got an iPhone 11 or later). You’ll get a notification on your device offering various actions, including Precision Finding and playing sounds.
- The sounds themselves will be changed “to use more of the loudest tones”.
- The logic used to trigger unwanted tracker alerts will be updated. Apple says this means users will be alerted earlier, but hopefully it’s more sophisticated than that.
Do you want to stop theft or stalking?
The fact that Apple has addressed the issue shows that it’s taking AirTag stalking seriously, and rightly so.
But there’s a lingering sense that Apple hasn’t yet found a way to reconcile one of the AirTag’s core roles, which is to prevent or minimise the damage caused by theft, with preventing stalking.
Someone with an expensive eBike, for example, might find a clever hiding place for an AirTag under the saddle, and lock it up safe in the knowledge that a prospective thief won’t be able to find it and will be easily tracked by the owner or (preferably) the police. But a comprehensive set of anti-stalking measures would result in that thief being quickly alerted to the AirTag’s presence and – as of the upcoming software update – precise location.
Unless the promised logic update is very clever indeed, it’s hard to see how an AirTag could ever tell the difference between a thief and a stalking victim, since both are people moving with it that it can’t recognise and aren’t aware of its presence. If we want to catch the thief we endanger the stalking victim; if we want to protect the stalking victim we allow the thief to escape.
The AirTag dilemma
Choosing between the two priorities is a no-brainer, and of course Apple should focus on stalking. Property can be replaced; people must come first.
But the company doesn’t yet seem to have acknowledged the fundamental conflict at the heart of the AirTag’s feature set. It has two jobs: helping an owner find an item they have lost, and helping them find an item that has been stolen. And the second one is the same as stalking. It’s benevolent stalking; stalking with good reason. But in function and process it’s exactly the same.
What’s the future of the AirTag? I’m not sure. Maybe it will revert to the first job only, and be simply a handy way of finding that wallet you left in a shop. Maybe the logic will become so sophisticated that it really will be able to tell when it’s being used to track a thief, and when it’s being used by a thief to track a prospective victim – although I can’t see an obvious way that would work.
But whatever Apple does, there will be compromises. Improving the AirTag’s performance in one direction (preventing theft) will worsen its dangers in another (enabling stalking); addressing the dangers will weaken the performance. It’s a fiendish dilemma.
I wish I had a suggestion to offer, but I don’t. Beyond this: the first step towards a solution is to admit there’s a problem. And when addressing privacy concerns around the AirTag, Apple needs to admit that right now it faces a doozy.