Integrated AirTags Could Be a Better Theft Deterrent

Toronto stolen car recovered with AirTags Find My app Credit: CTV News
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While Apple’s AirTags are intended primarily for locating your personal lost items, there’s been no shortage of reports where the diminutive trackers have helped folks recover stolen property, from luggage swiped at an airport to expensive cameras and even entire vehicles.

It’s this last point that’s prompted the City of New York to begin encouraging residents to place AirTags in discrete locations in their vehicles as a way to deal with rising car thefts in the city. This past weekend, New York City Mayor Eric Adams held a press conference, hailing Apple’s AirTag as an “excellent tracking device” and announcing that the NYPD would be handing out free AirTags for citizens to use in their vehicles. The project is starting with 500 donated AirTags being handed out upon request to residents of the Bronx. Mayor Adams hopes other business and community organizations will step up to make similar donations to expand the program.

Unfortunately, as great as this sounds, there’s one potentially serious flaw in the NYPD’s plan: an AirTag isn’t designed to be used as an anti-theft device.

For one, it’s trivial to disable an AirTag once you find it, and there’s little doubt that many car thieves will be more diligent about searching vehicles — especially when city officials like the NYPD are promoting them.

Hiding an extra decoy tag may help, as we saw in the case of this Toronto resident last year — “one to find, one to keep,” as the saying goes — but that won’t always help since AirTags can be pretty assertive when it comes to advertising their presence.

The problem with AirTags — or any tracking technology, really — is that they’re a double-edged sword. When you think about it, there’s a very fine line between using an AirTag to track a thief and using one to track a victim — and there’s no way for an AirTag to tell the difference.

Hence, Apple has had to err on the side of caution, building safety features into AirTags to alert potential victims when an unknown and potentially unwelcome AirTag has been found moving around with them.

Ironically, Apple’s initial features weren’t enough to quell the fears of groups that advocate against domestic violence, despite it being the first company to even attempt to prevent its tracking tags from being used for sinister purposes. In response to these concerns, Apple later shored up its safety features to make them even better — better for victims of unwanted stalking, that is.

The trade-off is that these improved safety features — more proactive audible and iPhone notifications and even an Android app to help detect unknown AirTags nearby — also make it harder to use an AirTag to recover stolen property. The same alerts that will let you know if somebody has planted an AirTag on you to follow you home will also alert a thief that they’re being tracked while they abscond with your stolen property.

Thankfully, this isn’t entirely a zero-sum game. It usually takes some time for the safety features to kick in; the audible alerts only begin after an AirTag has been separated from its iPhone for at least eight hours, and the warnings that appear on an iPhone look for an unknown AirTag staying with you over significant distances. In one case last year, a teenage girl only discovered upon leaving Disney World that an AirTag had been following her around the theme park for most of the day.

These delays can provide a window of opportunity during which the police can track down the location of a stolen vehicle or other property, but that’s by no means guaranteed. Thieves on the lookout for AirTags can easily find them, and as John Gruber succinctly points out at Daring Fireball, there’s no way to prevent this.

This is a case where, ideally, you’d want FindMy (or Apple’s Tracker Detect app for Android) not to notify a potential thief that they’re being tracked by an unknown-to-them AirTag. But we can’t have it both ways. There’s no magic way to mark your AirTag as not being used for stalking.

John Gruber

Integrated ‘AirTags’ and Apple’s Find My Network

While AirTags are certainly better than nothing, they’re far from an ideal solution, as their security features work equally well at protecting both victims and thieves from being stalked.

However, as Gruber points out, Apple has already devised a potential solution to this dilemma by licensing its Find My technology to third-party accessory makers. Sadly, there hasn’t been much uptake on this — but there really should be.

Interestingly, three devices that supported the Find My network were announced weeks before AirTags officially launched: Chipolo’s OneSpot, Belkin’s SoundForm earbuds, and VanMoof’s e-bike. A few other new products have come along since, including backpacks and wallets, and Apple has built the same technology into most of its AirPods.

However, it’s VanMoof’s bike that provides the best example of how AirTag-like Find My technology can be used in a more practical way for anti-theft purposes. Gruber touches on the idea of having cars that are integrated with Apple’s Find My network, which seems entirely viable considering that the technology is readily available to automakers.

One spitball idea: Apple could license AirTag technology to be built into third-party products. With cars, they could make it part of the CarPlay system — have an AirTag integrated with the dashboard console system.

John Gruber

Apple could even make it part of its new CarPlay 2.0, which presumably involves some Apple hardware in the in-car systems that support it.

The key point here is that, unlike AirTags, an integrated “AirTag” in your car would be harder to remove and wouldn’t need anti-stalking features. As a rule, most people aren’t going to plant their vehicle on someone to stalk them. Domestic safety advocates may still point to the problem of a spouse or other family member taking the family car to escape an abusive situation, but that seems like a niche case compared to planting an AirTag on a person, and there may be other ways Apple could address that if it became a problem.

This is already partially the case with the VanMoof e-bike and some other third-party Find My network devices. Your iPhone will notify you if it sees any Find My-equipped device moving around with you, whether it’s an AirTag or an e-bike, but the device won’t necessarily sound an audible alert unless it’s designed to do so.

Arguably, even the iPhone notification shouldn’t come from something like an e-bike, but Apple doesn’t differentiate. Even Apple’s AirPods Max will alert others to their presence — just in case somebody has deep enough pockets to use a $600 set of headphones to stalk someone. However, it shouldn’t be difficult to design the system to ignore alerts from certain classes of Find My devices, such as trackers built into a car’s dashboard.

Of course, no system is foolproof, and a determined professional thief could likely find and disable the built-in “AirTag.” As we shared last year, when the Toronto Star’s Chief Investigative Reporter, Kevin Donovan, told the story of his stolen Toyota Highlander (Apple News+), he noted that the thieves quickly disabled the built-in guidance system after his vehicle was handed off at a nearby park. However, some of this was accomplished by ripping the GPS antenna off the top of the vehicle.

An AirTag operates at much shorter ranges, so no antennas are required, and it’s entirely self-contained. That could make it more difficult to disable or extract without damaging the vehicle’s other electronics. Not impossible, but perhaps challenging enough to be a deterrent to stealing vehicles equipped with Apple’s AirTag-like Find My technology.

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