Investigation Reveals Apple AirTag Anti-Stalking Protections Work, But Not as Often as They Should | Here’s Why

The results were surprising.
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Apple’s AirTags receive a disproportionate amount of attention for the ways in which they can be used to track people without their knowledge. It’s particularly ironic since it’s only due to Apple’s efforts to prevent stalking that most people are aware that AirTags are being so widely used for this.

Or so it would seem. In reality, there could be many more cases where victims of stalking aren’t aware that an AirTag is tracking them.

According to an in-depth investigation by the folks at Motherboard, only one-third of police reports involving AirTags resulted from people calling the police because they were notified of an unwanted AirTag.

As part of its investigation, Motherboard sent requests to dozens of police departments for records mentioning AirTags over an eight-month period. It received 150 reports back in total, collected from eight police departments. The results were surprising.

The Results

  1. Of the 150 reports that mentioned AirTags, there were only 50 cases where the victim called the police because they had been notified of the AirTag’s existence.
  2. Almost all the victims in question were women, and of those, 25 could identify a likely suspect. This was usually an ex-partner, husband, or boss who they believed was following or harassing them.
  3. Only one case involved a man who suspected an ex-girlfriend of tracking him with an AirTag.
  4. AirTags were most often placed on or in vehicles.
  5. In several cases, women were prompted to look for tracking devices after seeing their exes suspiciously appearing “wherever and whenever they went out.”
  6. Multiple victims found several AirTags installed on their cars, resulting in repeated notifications for days or weeks until they managed to find all of them.

Motherboard also notes that some women feared that AirTags might have been planted to make them victims of human trafficking schemes. However, this belief may stem from fear-mongering viral videos and speculation by some police agencies; Motherboard has found no evidence that this is actually happening.

To be clear, not all of the police reports involved stalking. Motherboard had requested police reports “mentioning AirTags” in any way. Some of the reports mentioned AirTags in relation to robberies and thefts; for example, requests for police assistance in tracking down a stolen item that had an AirTag attached. According to Motherboard, these made up “less than half” of the reports, although it didn’t provide a specific number.

A few of the reports also involved people who received AirTag notifications but couldn’t actually find an AirTag anywhere. Others also mention callers who had merely heard about “the danger of AirTags on the news” and may not have involved an AirTag at all.

AirTags’ ‘Blind Spot’

Nevertheless, there were at least some reports where an AirTag was only found after the person called the police to report general concerns about being stalked by an ex-partner or other dangerous figure.

In these cases, the women were aware that they were likely targets of stalking but had no idea of the method. For instance, one woman took her car to a mechanic to have it checked out after she noticed her ex repeatedly following her. The mechanic found an AirTag in the vehicle.

In these cases, the most likely explanation is that the women either weren’t using Apple devices or were using older iPhones that hadn’t been updated to at least iOS 14.3 — the minimum version required to receive notifications from unknown AirTags.

As Eva Galperin, the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s (EFF) director of cybersecurity, notes, this is Apple’s biggest “blind spot” when it comes to AirTags.

That was a completely ridiculous way to launch a new device, without having taken into account its use in a domestic violence situation. But specifically, the blind spot that Apple had was people who live outside of the Apple ecosystem.Eva Galperin, Director of Cybersecurity, EFF

Apple has been working on improving these features, but it still has a long way to go to address all the potential scenarios. Even Apple’s solution for Android users is limited; potential victims can’t rely on being notified of unwanted AirTags nearby — they have to scan for them manually instead.

Much of this is likely due to technical limitations. With the wide range of Android devices available, an app that actively scans for nearby AirTags would almost certainly deplete the battery quickly on many smartphones.

Still, Apple has obviously found ways to deal with this on the iPhone, so it wouldn’t be an insurmountable problem for other handset makers to follow suit. At the very least, Apple should do more to work with the big players like Google and Samsung. Perhaps Apple already is.

AirTags Make Things Too Easy

It’s also an oversimplification to suggest that AirTags are getting attention solely as a result of Apple’s anti-stalking features. While that’s almost certainly a part of it — and Apple does deserve to be commended for being the first to actually think of this — there’s also the fact that AirTags have made this kind of stalking “cheaper and easier than ever.”

Stalking and stalkerware existed before AirTags, but Apple made it cheaper and easier than ever for abusers and attackers to track their targets. Apple’s global device network gives AirTags unique power to stalk around the world. And Apple’s massive marketing campaign has helped highlight this type of technology to stalkers and abusers who’d never otherwise know about it.”Albert Fox Cahn, Executive Director, Surveillance Technology Oversight Project

As Mary Beth Becker-Lauth, domestic violence community educator at the nonprofit organization Women’s Advocates, told Motherboard, location stalking isn’t new, but historically it’s generally been confined to stalkers with at least some technical knowledge. “Until fairly recently,” Becker-Lauth said, “the women (and they were always women) who’d come to our program for support while being stalked/tracked had an abuser/stalker who worked in IT or who was highly tech-savvy.”

AirTags have shifted that dynamic, effectively democratizing stalking. However, there may be a small silver lining to this: those who aren’t technically savvy enough to come up with better solutions are also usually dumb enough to get caught doing it. In that sense, AirTags almost work as a trap that can help catch many stalkers before they do any actual harm.

Despite her valid criticisms of the AirTag, the EFF’s Eva Galperin agrees, telling Motherboard that the AirTag can provide “solid evidence” in many cases.

It’s not that somebody has randomly found an AirTag. It’s that the anti-stalking mitigations that Apple has implemented are finally working, and the results are that some smaller subset of those people are then going to police. So, yes, we did understand from the very beginning that this was going to be a major problem. But part of it I think is just reflected in the fact that stalking is a major problem. And that having the AirTag alert go off is actually something that a person can bring to the police as solid evidence, which sometimes they otherwise do not have.” Eva Galperin, Director of Cybersecurity, EFF

Still, Galperin is quick to point out that Apple has only just scratched the surface here, and a lot more needs to be done. She suggests that what ultimately needs to happen is for all makers of physical trackers to agree on a standard that can be implemented across all mobile device operating systems. This way, it wouldn’t matter whether a stalker is using an AirTag, a Tile, or a Galaxy Smart Tag, or whether the potential victim is using an iPhone or Android smartphone; alerts would work across every combination of tracker and platform.

Other experts remain unconvinced, though, insisting that devices like AirTags are simply too dangerous to exist.

This is too little too late. These gimmicks do little to prevent AirTags from being misused, and they often only notify targets once the damage is done and their location has been tracked. There’s no technical fix that can prevent AirTags from being abused. As long as Apple continues to sell a cheap, easily-hidden tracking device, stalkers will continue to use it. The only solution is to stop selling and supporting AirTags. This product is far too dangerous to stay on the market.Albert Fox Cahn, Executive Director, Surveillance Technology Oversight Project

The only solution, these folks say, is for Apple to stop selling AirTags immediately. However, this wouldn’t solve much unless Tile and others followed suit. If anything, pulling AirTags off the market would be akin to sticking our collective heads in the sand; the problem of unwanted tracking wouldn’t go away — we’d simply stop hearing about it.

When it comes to technological stalking, Pandora’s box was opened long before Apple came along with the AirTag. Problems created by technology are rarely solved through technology; there are also societal issues at work.

First among these is that potential victims of stalking need more resources to protect themselves from abusers. As Becker-Lauth notes, “the safety of victim-survivors from control and violence does not appear to be a priority for many of the police departments in this country,” and police need to understand that when a woman reports that they’re being stalked, “what they’re really saying is that their life is in danger.”

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