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There’s no doubt that the popularity of Apple’s AirTags has raised concerns over the ability to misuse technology for stalking and unwanted tracking of other people and their belongings.
However, it’s also fair to say that AirTags haven’t created a new problem – affordable GPS trackers and similar tools have been on the market for well over a decade. With the introduction of AirTags, Apple has merely illuminated — rather brightly — the ways in which these sorts of products can be abused.
In fact, it’s rather ironic that the AirTag has gathered so much negative attention, considering Apple was the first company to introduce any kind of anti-stalking features into its tags — something that competitors like Tile and Samsung hadn’t even thought of.
Unfortunately, despite Apple’s efforts, groups that advocate against domestic violence criticized Apple early on for not doing enough to prevent stalking.
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To be fair, they had some valid complaints. For instance, as they were originally released, only iPhone users with iOS 14.5 or later would receive any indication that an AirTag may be moving around with them.
For those without an iPhone, Apple had included an audible alert feature, but this wouldn’t sound until the AirTag had been separated from its owner for three days. That allows more than enough time for a stalker to track down a victim’s home address, or an abusive spouse to determine where their partner was hiding out.
Apple was quick to adjust course on this, reducing the time window for the audible alert to hours, rather than days, and eventually releasing an Android app that could at least be used to scan for nearby AirTags.
Despite this, however, the little tags have continued to get something of a bad rap. Even though in numerous instances, that’s a result of the anti-stalking features working as designed — many reports are from people discovering AirTags planted on them because of Apple’s alerts — it’s still enough to worry many people. So, Apple is acting to quell some of these fears.
‘An update on AirTag and unwanted tracking’
Apple released a statement today to provide an update on what it’s doing with AirTags to prevent unwanted tracking, announcing new steps to raise public awareness, new warning screens, and new features that should help to prevent AirTags from being used for malicious purposes.
AirTag was designed to help people locate their personal belongings, not to track people or another person’s property, and we condemn in the strongest possible terms any malicious use of our products. Unwanted tracking has long been a societal problem, and we took this concern seriously in the design of AirTag.Apple
In the statement, Apple makes a point of reminding everyone that it’s already been well ahead of the game in providing security features, noting that it “innovated with the first-ever proactive system to alert you of unwanted tracking.”
The company also notes that it’s been working closely with safety groups and law enforcement to find ways to both update AirTag safety warnings and “guard against further unwanted tracking.”
We have been actively working with law enforcement on all AirTag-related requests we’ve received. Based on our knowledge and on discussions with law enforcement, incidents of AirTag misuse are rare; however, each instance is one too many. Apple
Without going into details, Apple also adds that it has already “successfully partnered” with law enforcement to provide information to trace AirTags back to perpetrators who were “apprehended and charged” as a result.
AirTag and Find My Network Changes
Apple has announced several more practical changes that it will be bringing to both AirTags and its overall Find My Network, including new privacy warnings, improved alerts, and better documentation and communication as to how these features work.
- New privacy warnings will appear when setting up an AirTag to emphasize that they’re meant only for use with the user’s own belongings. The warning will also note that using an AirTag to track someone without consent is a crime, that victims will likely be able to detect the AirTag, and that Apple will work with law enforcement to help them find the owner.
- Alerts will now correctly identify AirPods. It appears that Apple overlooked some of its alert messages when it released the enhanced Find My services for AirPods last fall. As things currently stand, users will receive an “Unknown Accessory Detected” alert when AirPods or a third-party Find My network accessory is moving with them. While Apple points out that an AirTag will always be identified by name, it plans to make sure that the alert will also properly indicate when the unknown device is a set of AirPods.
- Updated documentation and support articles will provide more details on the safety features built into AirTag and Find My network accessories, along with what scenarios may trigger an alert, and more visual examples to help users understand what these mean. Many of these have changes have already been rolled into Apple’s support article on unwanted tracking.
Apple says that the changes above will arrive in an upcoming software update, likely iOS 15.4, but that only reflects its immediate plans, as there are several other things that Apple plans to introduce later this year.
- Precision Finding will be available to anybody who receives an unwanted tracking alert to help them properly locate the unknown AirTag. Currently, users can force the AirTag to emit a sound, but that doesn’t always help narrow down its location. Folks with an iPhone 11 or later will be able to use Precision Finding the same way that an AirTag owner can to help them zone in on the tag’s exact location.
- Visual alerts will now accompany the AirTag’s audible alarm to ensure users are notified in scenarios where they may not otherwise be able to hear the AirTag. While most users should likely see the standard “AirTag Found Moving With You Alert” long before the audible alert sounds anyway, this should help to ensure that they’re notified in more cases.
- Improved unwanted tracking algorithms should also ensure users are more proactively notified if an unknown AirTag is moving around with them. As things work now, these alerts often don’t show up until the user returns to a location they regularly visit, such as their home. By that time, there’s a good chance that it’s too late — the stalker already has their location. Apple plans to refine its logic to ensure that these alerts come sooner.
- Making alerts more audible by tuning the AirTag’s sound to use louder tones to make sure that folks will be able to hear an unknown AirTag when it either goes off automatically or make it easier to track down when they receive a report on their iPhone.
Apple hasn’t offered any specifics about when these last few changes will be coming, beyond “later this year.” While tweaking the alert tones will likely require an AirTag firmware update, most of the other improvements should be baked into a future iOS release.
Alerts and notifications are generated by an iPhone when it detects an unknown AirTag. These aren’t dependent on the AirTag’s firmware, which means that there’s actually no way for somebody to hack an AirTag to disable these alerts.
Meanwhile, you can read more about how to deal with AirTags in Apple’s updated support article. Should you discover an unknown AirTag that’s been planted on you or your belongings, go to a safe location and contact law enforcement immediately, as there’s a very good chance that whoever planted that AirTag already has your current location.