Some iPhone Users Are Getting Stalking Alerts for AirTags That Aren’t There
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In its efforts to prevent criminals from using AirTags for unwanted tracking, it seems that Apple may have gotten a bit overzealous and introduced some big bugs into the system.
Even though Apple was the first company to even think of adding anti-stalking alerts to its location-tracking tags, the company got pilloried in the weeks following their release, accusing it of not doing enough to protect victims of domestic violence.
While many of the criticisms were valid — it’s fair to say Apple probably should have consulted with some of these groups when AirTags were still in development — Apple also responded to the allegations pretty quickly. It reduced the amount of time before an orphaned AirTag would sound an audible alert, released an Android app for detecting AirTags, added new warnings, and improved notification options in iOS 15.4, and most recently, it even made the audible warning sound even louder and more distinct.
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However, in its efforts to shore up the AirTag’s safety features, Apple may have overshot the mark. A new report from the Wall Street Journal (Apple News+) revealed that some users are getting alerts that they’re being stalked by an AirTag even when they’re not.
At least, that certainly appears to be the case. While there’s always the possibility of a false alarm when you’re out in a built-up area, some users are getting these alerts in the middle of the night, when they’re not going anywhere, and it’s implausible that somebody has planted an AirTag on them.
Further, these phantom alerts all share another common oddity: when opening up the map that shows where the tag has been following them, users see a series of straight red lines radiating out from their current location — lines that don’t make sense for a whole lot of reasons.
If an AirTag were in motion (perhaps flying?) along these paths, it would be crossing in the middle of city streets, passing through construction zones, even penetrating walls.Dalvin Brown The Wall Street Journal
It’s pretty clear that these notifications are the result of a bug, but it’s still causing confusion and concern for the folks receiving them. Many fear they are being stalked and go on a hunt for an AirTag that isn’t actually there.
It’s unclear how widespread this problem is, but the WSJ notes that reports of it have appeared on Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, and elsewhere, so these aren’t isolated incidents.
The problem is that as improbable as it is that somebody planted an AirTag on you at home, a tracking alert like this isn’t the sort of thing you want to ignore.
The WSJ shared the story of a 25-year-old marketer in Indianapolis who discovered a safety alert on his iPhone when he woke up last month and frantically searched for the AirTag, to the point of having a mechanic check his car and asking neighbors if they owned one.
Another person, a 45-year-old Toronto-based consumer researcher, realized that the pattern on the map “looked super weird” and led him to wonder if his neighbor’s dog had swallowed an AirTag.
How Unknown AirTag Alerts Are Supposed to Work
It’s unlikely that you would receive an alert about an unknown AirTag when you’ve already been home for several hours. The alerts aren’t designed to go off unless you’ve been moving.
Since you could be surrounded by AirTags belonging to other people, Apple has placed certain conditions on the unknown AirTag alerts to prevent the kind of false alarms that would otherwise occur several times a day:
- An AirTag has to be away from its owner’s iPhone or iPad. An AirTag traveling with its owner isn’t likely being used for stalking. Even if the person who owns the AirTag is actually stalking you, the AirTag isn’t the problem in that case.
- An AirTag has to be moving with you. If you happen to come across a stray AirTag that has been separated from its owner, you still won’t get an alert. After all, the AirTag isn’t stalking you unless it keeps showing up at the same places that you’re at. The text in the alert even says, “AirTag Found Moving With You.” If the AirTag is stationary, it’s much more likely just lost, so there’s no need to alert you to its presence.
- An AirTag has to be with you over some time. There are scenarios where a lost AirTag might be moving with you but not tracking you. For example, if somebody forgot their bag or jacket on public transit. To avoid false alarms, Apple won’t notify you of an AirTag found moving with you unless it’s been moving with you for a while or it’s with you when you return to a place you frequent, such as your home, workplace, or another regular hangout.
- The alert should include a realistic map of where you’ve been. Since you won’t get the alert until the AirTag has been moving with you for a while, the notification will include a map that shows the path you took with the AirTag.
Apple doesn’t say how long this timeframe is, but from the reports we’ve heard, it’s likely in the neighborhood of a few hours rather than a few minutes. Earlier this week, we reported on the story of a teen girl who had an AirTag planted on her at Disney World. In that case, the girl’s Find My app reported that the AirTag had been following her around the theme park for a little over four hours.
This certainly makes it possible that you may not get an unknown AirTag warning until you return home. However, since Apple considers your home address to be a significant location, if an AirTag is following you, you’ll get that alert within minutes of arriving at your house, not several hours later that night or the following day.
It’s also important to remember that both you and the AirTag have to be moving together. If you’re sitting at home and your neighbor’s dog is running around outside with an AirTag, this won’t trigger a valid alert since that AirTag is not being used to track you. After all, if someone plants an AirTag on you, they already know where you are; it’s not a threat until you move to another location with it.
A Possible Fix?
When the folks at the WSJ reached out to Apple, a spokesman said that it’s possible these alerts could result in a message stating, “from an iPhone receiving area Wi-Fi signals that temporarily confused its location services.” He suggested going to Settings > Privacy > Location Services and toggling the switch off and back on while Wi-Fi is enabled. He also said that it’s possible for AirTags owned by others nearby to inadvertently trigger unwanted alerts in “more densely populated areas.”
If this is a bug, it’s unclear whether it’s something on Apple’s back-end systems or an issue in the latest iOS 15 releases. Most of those affected haven’t shared what version of iOS or model of iPhone they’re using. Regardless, hopefully it’s something Apple fixes soon.