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Although Apple’s AirTags have some of the best personal safety features of any item trackers out there, that hasn’t entirely quelled the fears of groups that advocate for better protection against domestic violence, who have begun publicly expressing concerns that Apple needs to do more to make sure that its new tracking tags can’t be used to stalk and potentially assault women.
In a recent interview with Fast Company, representatives from the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) expressed concerns that AirTags are so affordable and easy to use that they can also be “a worrisome surveillance tool that could be leveraged by an abuser to discreetly track a partner.“
The NNEDV is a leading nonprofit that seeks to end violence against women. It sits on advisory boards for a number of big tech companies, including Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Uber, and has also consulted for both Google and Apple in the past, although it was not involved in any way in the development of the AirTag.
While it’s unclear how well the group understand the principle behind AirTags — specifically that they can only track somebody when other Apple devices are nearby — this doesn’t necessarily invalidate their concerns, as a director at the organization noted that domestic abusers “will be using any type of product they can” to track their victims.
When somebody tries to leave an abusive person, or they are planning to leave, that can be one of the most dangerous times that stalking and assault can escalate. So, it’s extremely important if people are planning to leave an abusive person, they’re able to do so without the person tracking them down and finding them.Erica Olsen, safety net project director at NNEDV
Of course, AirTags already have anti-stalking features, many of which we’ve been hearing about for some time — even long before the AirTags were formally announced, thanks to code found in beta versions of iOS 14.3 and beyond. Apple marketing VP Kaiann Drance and senior engineering director Ron Huang also shared some more details last week about exactly how these features work, including how rogue AirTags will emit a noise after three days, and that iPhone users will be alerted if an unknown AirTag is found moving with them.
In speaking with Fast Company last week, Drance also made it abundantly clear that Apple can and will cooperate with law enforcement when it comes to identifying the owner of a found AirTag.
In essence, this means that anybody planning to use an AirTag for criminal purposes is actually taking a very big risk by effectively leaving their calling card behind. Of course, in the case of domestic abuse, that won’t always be a deterrent, and if an abuser plans to use an AirTag to chase down and harm their victim, it could end up being too little, too late.
The anti-stalking notifications triggered on the user’s iPhone are potentially a much bigger help, as it will allow a person who is being tracked with an AirTag to — hopefully — find out quickly if there’s an AirTag that’s following them around.
Unfortunately, Apple has been somewhat vague on exactly how this works. Thus far both the company’s support documents and comments by its executives have simply said that these notifications appear when an AirTag is “found travelling with you,” suggesting that they’re not immediate, and that they’re also likely at least somewhat location-based.
Responding to the concerns expressed by the NNEDV this week, however, an Apple spokesperson shared a few additional details with Fast Company about how this works, although they still declined to answer any specific questions about whether it consulted with domestic violence organizations when designing AirTags.
We take customer safety very seriously and are committed to AirTag’s privacy and security. AirTag is designed with a set of proactive features to discourage unwanted tracking—a first in the industry—and the Find My network includes a smart, tunable system with deterrents that applies to AirTag, as well as third-party products part of the Find My network accessory program. We are raising the bar on privacy for our users and the industry, and hope others will follow.Apple
Fast Company also asked Apple why it had not chosen to extend the “full AirTag protections” to Android users, since only an iPhone user will be alerted if an AirTag is travelling with them. Android users would have to wait up to three days before the AirTag starts emitting a sound on its own, and as Fast Company points out, if it’s a domestic abuse situation, the victim might find themselves in the proximity of their abuser/stalker frequently enough that this alert would never actually be triggered.
Three days won’t work if you’re going home every day to the same person tracking you. . . . Apple is thinking about the threat model where it’s a stalker who is walking by someone on the street they don’t know—that stranger danger model—but what about when it is the person you come home to every day?Corbin Streett, technology safety specialist at NNEDV
That said, an AirTag is far less useful for tracking a non-Apple user, since it relies on nearby Apple devices to report its location. A user who is travelling with an iPhone and an AirTag is effectively updating their location in real-time as they move around; an AirTag being carried by somebody without an Apple device will only provide location updates when it’s within a relatively short range of other nearby Apple devices.
It’s also unclear how long an AirTag has to be near an Apple device before it gets picked up and has its location reported. We simply don’t know right now whether passing other vehicles on a freeway, or even walking past people on the street are enough to trigger a location update, and Apple isn’t being much help in answering those questions.
In other words, while non-iPhone users have less of a risk of being accurately tracked by an AirTag than iPhone users, it’s difficult to quantify exactly how much less.
One thing Apple did share with Fast Company is that it’s designed the AirTag and Find My app to specifically alert users immediately upon arriving at home with an unknown AirTag on their person (based on the address stored in their “Me” card), as well as other locations that they normally frequent (as determined by the iPhone’s location history).
However, Apple didn’t offer up any other details about how often or quickly this alert will otherwise pop up, and declined to disclose any other information for public safety reasons. Presumably, Apple doesn’t want to give away details that would allow stalkers to try to circumvent these protections.
To be fair, NNEDV isn’t really singling out Apple here so much as it’s sounding the alarm as tracking technology becomes more mainstream.
As representatives of the organization explain, surveillance devices have long been a serious issue for survivors of domestic abuse, to the point that hallway houses now specifically check settings and apps on smartphones and search the bags of survivors who arrive at their facilities. “There are many instances, in doing that, they have discovered a tracker in a bag, or a stuffed animal a little kid brought,” says NNEDV safety net project director Erica Olsen.
The problem, however, is that AirTags are being launched at “a scale, and a level of platform control, that only Apple can achieve.” While Apple’s largest competitor, Tile, boasts no more than 35 million users, AirTags can be tracked via the worldwide network of nearby a billion Apple iPhones and Macs.
Every Apple user is a piece of Apple’s AirTag-hunting web and is passively complicit in the massive AirTag infrastructure, unless they opt out of the Find My network.Fast Company
NNEDV’s technology safety specialist Corbin Streett emphasizes that this isn’t about condemning Apple, but rather making sure that it continues to “keep their learning hat on” to try to figure out even better ways to make sure that it can’t be used against people who are in potentially abusive relationships.