Toggle Dark Mode
It’s been less than two days since Apple took the wraps off its highly anticipated AirTags, and the internet is already abuzz with folks coming up with all sorts of clever ideas about how they might use AirTags, attaching them to everything from cars to pets and kids.
While many of these may sound like great ideas on the surface, they’ve also raised some pointed questions about whether an AirTag is really suitable for these things, particularly when you look at the built-in privacy features.
Fortunately, Apple executives have headed off some of these ideas in a recent interview with Fast Company, where they want to make it clear that AirTags were designed to track things, not people or pets.
Putting Privacy First
As we noted yesterday, AirTags are not intended to be anti-theft devices. In fact, nowhere in any of Apple’s marketing of support documents is it suggested that these could be used to recover an item that’s been stolen.
In other words, an AirTag is designed to be attached to an item you’ve misplaced, not one that’s been taken by somebody else.
The key point here is that one of Apple’s priorities in designing the AirTag was to make sure it couldn’t be misused to invade somebody else’s privacy. However, it’s very difficult to come up with a technological solution that recognizes the difference between the privacy of an innocent bystander and the privacy of a thief who is running away with your stuff. AirTags won’t make that distinction, and they’ll always err on the side of caution.
Frankly, we applaud Apple for this approach, and think it made the right call. Things can be replaced. People can’t.
In talking to Fast Company, Kaiann Drance, Apple’s VP of worldwide iPhone marketing, and Ron Huang, senior director of sensing and connectivity, clarified that Apple’s design choices to put privacy first means that there are simply going to be some other things that the AirTag is not designed to handle.
Fast Company’s Michael Grothaus asked Apple’s execs specifically about parents using AirTags to track their small kids in places like amusing parks, or even their pets, and Drance made it clear that this wasn’t something that Apple ever intended the AirTag to be used for.
When I asked Drance about parents using AirTags to track their small children (such as during an outing at an amusement park) or pets (we know you’re up to something shady, Fluffy) she was quick to stress that the company designed the AirTag to track items, not people or pets.Michael Grothaus, Fast Company
Instead, Drance says, parents would be far better to get an Apple Watch and use the new Family Setup feature. While a $279 Apple Watch — plus a cellular data plan — is considerably more costly than a $29 AirTag, it’s also going to be far more reliable, and of course includes other benefits.
The catch is that AirTags aren’t really designed to track items that are going to move around at random. Remember, they include no GPS, cellular, or even Wi-Fi capabilities, which means that you aren’t going to get reliable tracking unless they happen to be within range of an iPhone or other Apple device.
Drance notes that the same problem applies to attaching an AirTag to a pet.
If people do that, they just have to make sure that their moving pet gets into range of a device in the Find My network.Kaiann Drance, Apple’s VP of worldwide iPhone Product Marketing
It’s also not clear at this point exactly how long it takes for a device in the Find My network to actually pick up and report the location of an AirTag that it comes across. The very nature of the technology suggests that there’s likely to be at least a short delay before this happens, so your lost AirTag probably won’t be picked up as its whizzing by other cars on the freeway, but it’s unclear if an AirTag on Fluffy or Fido would be picked up as they run past an iPhone user sitting on a park bench.
To be clear, Drance doesn’t rule out using AirTags for pets, but wants to make sure that users understand the limitations of the technology. If your dog wanders out into the woods, it’s very unlikely that an iPhone is going to be nearby to report their location.
The other potential problem with using an AirTag to track a pet is the possibility of triggering the anti-stalking features when the animal has been away from its owner for an extended period of time.
As things stand now, an AirTag that’s been away from its paired iPhone for three days or more will start emitting a sound to alert others to its presence. While this isn’t likely to be an issue for most pet owners, it could create a problem for those who travel without their pets. Apple has made some allowances for Family Sharing users to prevent them from being notified of each other’s AirTags, but this doesn’t necessarily extend to recognizing family members’ iPhones as alternative paired devices.
For those who actually do find an unwanted AirTag on their person, Drance also confirmed our previous suspicions that Apple will be able to provide information on the original owner to law enforcement if it receives an official request for this information.
If you are concerned that there’s a risk of your being tracked you could contact law enforcement. What the AirTag’s serial number is used for is when you first set up your AirTag it is paired with an Apple ID along with some additional information such as your name, your email address, your date of birth, and things like that, which Apple could provide to law enforcement if asked for, with the proper warrants and process.Kaiann Drance, Apple’s VP of worldwide iPhone Product Marketing
Ultimately, Apple’s executives hope that these features will discourage bad actors from using AirTags for nefarious purposes once they realize that they’re effectively leaving their calling card on a potential victim.
Other Interesting Notes
The interview also revealed a few other interesting tidbits about how AirTags will work:
- Huang explained that Bluetooth identifiers “are rotated many times a day and never reused, so that as you travel from place to place with the AirTag, you cannot be re-identified.”
- Even though almost a billion Apple devices act as a crowdsourced monitoring network to help find lost AirTags, the owner of an AirTag can never see which devices are being used to identify its AirTags, or who owns those devices. The process is completely anonymous.
- AirTags have a “Pairing Lock” feature similar to the iPhone’s Activation Lock, preventing people from stealing your AirTag and using it themselves. “This has been really impactful for the iPhone, and we think it will be for AirTag as well.” Huang adds.
- An AirTag won’t give up any information other than its serial number unless it’s been placed in Lost Mode by its owner. In fact, it can only be scanned by an NFC device like an iPhone or Android smartphone once it’s been placed in Lost Mode, and will only show whatever information the owner chooses to enter as a Lost Mode message.
- The “AirTag Found Moving With You” anti-stalking notifications will only appear on iPhones running iOS 14.5 or later.
- You’ll only be able to pair up to 16 AirTags with a single Apple ID.
You can preorder Apple’s AirTags staring tomorrow, April 23, at 5 a.m. PDT, and they’re expected to arrive in stores by next Friday, April 30. They sell for $29 each or $99 for a four-pack, but keep in mind that they don’t come with any way to attach them to your stuff, so be prepared to buy the appropriate accessories too.